The Government's watchdog on food safety has been accused of planning to waste £500,000 on a PR exercise that would only benefit the GM industry.
Director of campaign group Genewatch UK, Dr Helen Wallace, resigned last night from the Food Standards Agency's steering group considering bids to run its public dialogue on GM crops and food, accusing the watchdog of allowing biotech lobby groups to exert too much influence over the process.
The FSA says the public dialogue is meant to give the public a chance to talk about what they see as the risks and benefits of GM in food and also identify what information people need and want in order to make confident, informed choices about the food they eat.
Dr Wallace said the FSA had met with pro-GM group the Agricultural Biotechnology Council (ABC) and accepted many of its arguments, including the line that 'zero tolerance' of unapproved GM crops in the EU threatens food supplies.
'The FSA appears to be actively engaged in trying to use the so-called dialogue to implement the industry’s PR strategy: focusing on a non-existent positive future where new GM crops will ‘feed the world’, whilst lobbying to end the segregation of GM and non-GM food and feed entering Britain and Europe, and opposing the labelling of meat and dairy products produced using GM feed.
Dr Wallace said a debate was needed but that it should include all the issues, including food labelling, funding for scientific research and GM animal feed rules.
She also said it should be run by either the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) or the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).
'The FSA has a food safety remit but that does not extend to the corporate control of the world food trade, scientific funding or the future of agriculture in Britain,' she said.
Writing in response to Dr Wallace's resignation, Soil Association policy director Peter Melchett said the Agency's public dialogue had lost its neutrality.
'I think most people could never understand why the last Government asked the FSA to carry out what many of us believed was intended to be a pro-GM propaganda exercise, pursuing one of Tony Blair's obsessions, and costing a large amount of public money,' Melchett said. 'Given Dr Wallace's resignation, and the current economic climate, it would be unthinkable for the agency to continue to waste public money on this exercise.'
An FSA spokesperson said it was committed to holding a 'well-balanced' dialogue with members of the public about the issues surrounding food produced with the aid of genetic modification and had presumed 'no particular outcome'.
'Our aim in conducting that dialogue would be to ensure that the issues, concerns and aspirations that the public have with respect to the use of genetic modification in the production of food are identified and recognised in future policy,' said a statement issued on behalf of the steering group organising the public dialogue.
The Agricultural Biotechnology Council (ABC) also responded to the criticism and said it stood by the need for GM to be presented as 'an option' within the wider context of food security as part of the solution to a growing population.
'We look forward to the day when consumers are able to vote with their wallets on this subject and when farmers are able to access the tools they need to produce high quality affordable food in the face of climate change and resource depletion,' said Dr Julian Little, ABC chair.