Region suffers GM debate

By David GreenTHE eastern counties have been ignored by the organisers of regional conferences to discuss the future of genetically-modified crops in the UK - despite being the biggest arable farming area.

By David Green

THE eastern counties have been ignored by the organisers of regional conferences to discuss the future of genetically-modified crops in the UK - despite being the biggest arable farming area.

GM Nation, a national debate being held in the run-up to a Government decision on whether to allow the technology to be commercially exploited in this country, will be launched today.

But while the eastern counties has hosted many of the genetically-modified (GM) field trials and would play a major part in GM crop production, none of the six big regional conferences are to be held here.

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The nearest conference will be in Birmingham. The others are in Harrogate, Swansea, Taunton, Belfast and Glasgow.

Rachel Juster, the National Farmers' Union (NFU) senior policy adviser in East Anglia, said the eastern counties were “conspicuous by their absence” from the list of conference venues.

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“I don't know how the choice of venues was made, but we are a big arable area and there is a lot of interest here,” she added.

Adrian Ramsay, eastern region co-ordinator for the Green Party, said it appeared the Government did not want to hear the views of people who might be most affected by a decision to introduce GM crops.

Professor Malcolm Grant, chairman of the independent steering group running the debate, said he had not had direct control of the conference venues because the organisation of them had been “contracted out” to the Central Office of Information (COI), a Government department.

“It is a shame that one of the conference is not going to be held in the eastern counties, but difficult decisions had to be made based on the limited funds available,” he added.

Prof Grant said it had been important to hold one of the conferences in each of the “devolved” regions of the UK.

But he stressed the regional conferences would be only one facet of the debate and was looking to local authorities to organise debates in their own areas.

“I am optimistic we get some action in the eastern counties. I will try to help by providing facilitators where possible,” said Prof Grant said.

He added he had received a personal assurance from Margaret Beckett, Secretary of State at the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), that the Government would listen to the debate and take it into account prior to any decision being taken.

Pete Riley, anti-GM campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said the independence of the debate had to be questioned as a result of DEFRA's insistence that the COI should be involved in its planning.

“The aim of the debate has never been clear - is it a genuine attempt to gauge local opinion to guide the Government's decision on commercialisation or is it just window dressing?” he asked.

Meanwhile, the NFU said it might organise a regional conference in East Anglia for interested farmers and “selected” members of the public.

The only local authority in the region to so far announce plans for a GM debate is Cambridge City Council.

Jim Dutton, who encountered controversy when he hosted a GM maize trial at his Wivenhoe farm, said he hoped the debate would be informed and would not be taken over by “the rowdies”.

He added: “My own experience is that GM crops could be an advantage and have less impact on wildlife and there is evidence from other countries that it could combat poverty by increasing yields.”

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