Although privately the debate on whether genetically modified foods should be present in our food chain has been roaring behind closed, and sometimes open, doors, yesterday the UK government officially announced the launch of the GM Nation debate.
Voicing the views of the government, Margaret Beckett, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said that in order to find out what people really think about GM foods she was keen to see a wide-ranging and effective public debate, that stretches further than the often polarised views. She added that the government remains strongly committed to the public debate.
But on the same day, eight major organisations in the UK joined forces to call on the UK government to extend the debate until the end of October, to ensure that people had the chance to take part and have their views heard.
In a letter to Margaret Beckett, the Consumers' Association, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, the National Federation of Women's Institutes, the National Trust, UNISON, RSPB and Sustain confirmed their support for the public debate but criticised the way it had been organised.
"The organisation of the GM public debate can only be described as a catalogue of errors from start to finish," said Sheila McKechnie, director of the Consumers' Association.
The proposal to promote a national debate on GM foods came from theAgriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission (AEBC) in its report 'Crops on Trial', published in September 2001. An independent steering board, chaired by Professor Malcolm Grant, is managing the debate and is due to submit a report on the debate to the government by the end of September.
But critics want to push back the publication of the report to the beginning of 2004, citing pragmatic concerns as an obstacle to a meaningful debate. They claim that very few meetings have been arranged at local levels, background materials for people taking part in the debate are very basic and little guidance has been given on how the local meetings should be facilitated to ensure that people are fully involved.
Liana Stupples, Policy and Campaigns Director at Friends of the Earth commented: "The public has been making its feelings known on GM for the last six years, but the government has not been willing to listen. Now that they are finally inviting people to express their concerns, the government must take this debate seriously and show that they are doing so."
The UK government confirmed yesterday that it has given a commitment to make a written response to the public debate report, and indicate what has been learnt from the debate when making future policy announcements on GM.