British OK GM Maize, Greenpeace Furious

Britain gave conditional approval on Tuesday for commercial planting of genetically modified (GM)maize, prompting fury from nvironmentalists who threatened to turn the hugely controversial issue into a "nightmare" for Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett told parliament the government would agree "in principle" to commercial cultivation of GM herbicide- tolerant maize but said it did not expect any to be grown for at least a year.

"There is no scientific case for a blanket approval of all the uses of GM," she said. "Safety, human health and the environment must remain at the heart of our regulatory regime.

"But equally there is no scientific case for a blanket ban on the use of GM."

More than three years of UK trials of gene-altered, herbicide-resistant crops have found that pesticides used on two of them -- sugar beet and rapeseed -- posed a greater threat to the environment than those used on conventional crops.

Only T25/Chardon LL maize -- a type of cattle feed developed by German chemical giant Bayer -- fared better. Beckett said Britain would oppose growing of GM beet and oilseed rape, that the maize should only be grown as it had been during the field trials and that further research should be conducted on the possible effects on conventional maize.

"I do not in fact anticipate any commercial cultivation of GM maize before pring 2005 at the earliest," she said.

Further hurdles remain, not least securing backing from the devolved Scottish parliament and Welsh Assembly.

The National Farmers Union welcomed the decision but urged the government to proceed with caution.

Green campaigners, however, were aghast. "The government has given the thumbs up to GM maize and shown two fingers to the British public," said Friends of the Earth director Tony Juniper. "Tony Blair must not ignore the threat GM poses to our food, farming and the environment."

Blair is a long-time supporter of the technology, in principle, arguing that too much dither risks Britain's position at the cutting edge of scientific innovation, capitalizing on the multi-billion dollar biotechnology industry.

But British and wider European public opinion is overwhelmingly skeptical about so-called "Frankenstein Foods."

Environmental group Greenpeace pledged to turn the issue into a "nightmare" for Blair at next year's expected election. "There are thousands of people ready to fight him on this.

The end result could be chaos in the countryside during an election year," said Greenpeace campaigner Sarah North.

Critics say Blair is bowing to his American allies. The United States, the world's largest producer of gene crops, has been lobbying hard for the European Union to end its effective five-year ban on GM imports and is also trying to get the World Trade Organization to declare the moratorium illegal.

"This is the wrong decision," Blair's former environment minister, Michael Meacher, said. "It is driven by the commercial interests of the big biotech companies and no doubt pressure from the White House."

Last week, parliament's cross-party Environmental Audit Committee said doubts remained about the environmental impact of GM crops and that trials on maize, which it said were flawed, should be restarted before commercial planting was allowed.

Whatever the environmental concerns, the British Medical Association said GM foods were unlikely to harm human health.

By Mike Peacock, LONDON