Ministers are preparing to open the way for genetically modified crops to be grown in Britain on the grounds they could help combat the global food crisis.
Ministers have told The Independent that rocketing food prices and food shortages in the world's poorest countries mean the time is right to relax Britain's policy on use of GM crops.
Last night, the Environment minister Phil Woolas held preliminary talks with the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, an umbrella group formed in 2000 to promote the role of biotechnology in agriculture. It is run by representatives from the companies Monsanto, Bayer CropSciences, BASF, Dow AgroSciences, Pioneer (DuPont), and Syngenta.
He said: "There is a growing question of whether GM crops can help the developing world out of the current food price crisis. It is a question that we as a nation need to ask ourselves. The debate is already under way. Many people concerned about poverty in the developing world and the environment are wrestling with this issue."
He stressed that the "very robust" procedures for ensuring the safety of experiments would continue, with scientists looking at each application on its merits.
The move will anger environmental groups, who accuse the GM industry of trying to exploit the global crisis to win approval for their products.
In 2004, after a heated public debate, the Government decided there was no scientific case for a blanket ban on GM crops. But amid fears over so-called "Frankenstein foods", it decided that commercial production would be allowed on a case-by-case basis, only if evidence showed it would not pose a risk to human health or the environment. There are no GM crops being grown in Britain and only one trial is taking place – of GM potatoes in Cambridgeshire.
Ministers are treading carefully, aware that strong government support for GM crops would provoke a backlash by opponents. Those ministers who favour a renewed push believe there are no scientific arguments against the idea. They argue that Britain has a duty to look at the issue on the grounds that boosting production is the best way to reduce global food prices.
They want the new debate to focus on the science to avoid a re-run of the one in 2004, when the GM industry was accused of trying to bounce the Government into giving the go-ahead for purely commercial reasons.
Gordon Brown is believed to be sympathetic to taking a fresh look at the issue in the light of mounting problems including "food riots" around the world. There are no plans yet for a formal cabinet decision but government sources acknowledge the issue is rising up the agenda. "Enough time has elapsed since the 2004 decision," one said. At a summit of EU leaders in Brussels today, the Prime Minister will propose a six-point plan to drive down food prices which includes " improving the EU regulatory regime for GM organisms". This is aimed at cutting the cost of GM products used in animal feed.
Green groups reacted angrily to the prospect of a government rethink. Clare Oxborrow, GM campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said: "Industry claims that GM crops are necessary to feed the world are a cynical attempt to use the food crisis for financial gain – and governments should look at the industry's record before believing the hype.
"After a decade of commercialisation most GM crops are used for animal feed, not food; they do not yield more than conventional crops; and GM drought and salt-tolerant crops remain a PR promise rather than reality. We now need a radical shift towards sustainable farming systems that genuinely benefit local farmers communities and the environment worldwide."
Jan van Aken, agricultural campaigner for Greenpeace International, said: "I am appalled that the GM industry is abusing the misery of millions of hungry people around the world, using it as propaganda to sell a product by claiming it would reduce hunger. By all means the Government can have a look at it, but it should look at the facts and then drop it. There is no science behind the industry's claim."
The EU is also reviewing its stance on GM foods after coming under pressure from the US, which dominates the GM industry, to relax an unofficial moratorium on new licences ruled illegal by the World Trade Organisation. France, Germany and Austria are cautious but the European Commission, backed by Britain and other EU nations, believes that lifting the ban could help to solve the global food crisis. George Bush has said GM crops could help to ease the problems because of their high yields and resistance to drought.
An uneasy history
1983: US Environment Protection Agency approves the release of first genetically modified crop after scientists create GM tobacco.
1985: GM crop trials take place in the UK and around the world.
1992: US professor Paul Lewis coins the expression "Frankenfood".
1993: US Food and Drug Administration allows the marketing of GM seed.
1994: The Flavr Savr tomato becomes the first GM food to be approved in the US.
1996: GM tomato paste arrives in UK, amid protests.
1999: Downing Street says Tony Blair has eaten GM food and views it as safe.
2004: Planting of GM maize is approved in the UK.
2006: The German biotech firm BASF is given go-ahead for five-year trial of blight-resistant GM potatoes in Britain.
2007: Government backs industry calls to support GM.
2008: Ministers discuss relaxing approach to GM crops to tackle global food crisis.