|LONDON - The British government is likely within days to give the green light to the commercial planting of genetically modified maize cattle feed despite strong public opposition, a former cabinet minister said.|
\"I wouldn\'t put it as high as a foregone conclusion they will give the go ahead, but I would say it is extremely likely,\" Michael Meacher, environment minister from 1997 to 2003, told Reuters by telephone.
\"There will be a statement. It could be in this next week but I have been told by DEFRA (the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) it is much more likely to be in the first week of March,\" he said.
No one from DEFRA was immediately available to comment.
Meacher\'s comments followed the leak of confidential minutes of a cabinet committee which revealed Secretary of State for the Environment Margaret Beckett as stating that there was no scientific basis for a continued ban on genetically modified crops.
It is a complete reversal of Meacher\'s view that there is no scientific case for Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) which should therefore remain banned.
The cabinet committee minutes also made it clear that the government, which is pushing for an end to the European Union\'s ban on imports of genetically modified maize from the United States, was in favour of allowing commercial planting.
The government promptly denied that any decision had been taken.
\"It is interesting to note that despite the leak of these supposedly confidential minutes, the government has not announced any inquiry,\" Meacher said.
The United States, the world\'s largest producer of GM crops, has been lobbying hard across the 15-nation EU to lift the ban on imports, and is also bidding to get the World Trade Organisation to declare the ban illegal.
Meacher said he believed the leak may have been sanctioned by the government as a way of assessing the strength of public opinion and taking the sting out of the announcement when it comes.
\"By making this announcement and then saying it is nothing to do with us, it smooths the strength of reaction in the House of Commons and in the media that day,\" Meacher said, speaking from his northern England constituency.
\"If this leak was indeed designed to test the public reaction, then it is possible that the way in which they present it may be affected by their assessment of the public reaction. But I don\'t think their position will alter,\" he said.
Opinion polls have shown the public against allowing GMOs. But the strength of opposition is starting to wane.
The leak of the cabinet committee minutes prompted a flurry of outraged headlines. But the backlash lasted barely 24 hours.
Environment group Friends of the Earth has said it could lodge a legal challenge to any decision to allow commercial planting of GMOs on the grounds of inadequate scientific testing.
Story by Jeremy Lovell
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE