Who would envy Elliot Morley? The no-nonsense DEFRA minister whose brief now includes genetically modified foods certainly has his work cut out. But, as he tells The Grocer in his first interview since taking over Michael Meacher's GM files, he is not fazed. In stark contrast to his predecessor -whose increasingly anti-GM stance arguably cost him his job - he remains to be convinced GM foods are bad for your health.
Dressed for the hot weather in a short-sleeved shirt, no tie, Morley strides through his large mahogany-furnished office and drops into a soft chintz sofa in the corner of the room.
Predictably for a politician, he is late for the interview. Less predictably, the straight-talking northerner concurs that the public debate on GM crops and foods, that ends next week, did not get off to a good start.
"It's incredibly difficult because any kind of format you have is never going to be perfect," he says. "There is always a danger that one side or the other will take things over. There's no doubt that the anti-GM groups are generally better organised and more vociferous."
He gives short shrift to the anti-GM protestors that have tried to sabotage some of the field scale trials. "They are shortsighted. Their issues might be serious, but we won't know unless we have field trials."
However, strongly hinting he is more amenable to GM than Meacher, he adds: "There is an argument that GM crops can benefit ­ for instance, they could lead to a reduction in the chemicals being sprayed. These are being evaluated. I'll be interested to see the results."
The public debate has drawn flak for its limited scope, conducted on just two websites ­ Defra's and GM Nation's ­ and dominated by groups with vested interests rather than average members of the public. Morley concedes this, but he adds: "I do think it has been a success in the sense it has got some genuine discussion going. It's had coverage in the media, generated questions in parliament and has been mentioned on The Archers."
A Mori poll last week indicated the public was swinging slightly from a strongly anti-GM stance. Morley thinks the tenor of the debate will change further, but expects anti-GM sentiment to predominate: "Up to now, the debate has been anti-GM. There's no doubt that reflects public opinion."
He reiterates the government's stance, however. "Its position is and remains that it has an open mind ­ and we should consider the benefits as well as the risks."
There have been reports the government will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the pro-GM US. Morley says dismissively: "I don't think central government does want to push ahead with GM ­ it's a fallacy [perpetuated by] certain groups that argue that if you don't condemn GM out of hand, in some way that makes you pro-GM." And his own view? Distancing himself from Meacher, who as we speak is holding his leaving party next door, he says: "We should be cautious and if there are doubts about some of the scientific evaluations, we should extend them or commission further work. We will try to respond to people's quite legitimate concerns. But I am not as convinced as Michael about the health threats. The greater risk is environmental cross-contamination, and that's the focus of the field scale evaluations."
Of Meacher's recent backbench remonstrations, he adds tersely. "He is entitled as a backbench MP to express his views." One of those views is that the evaluation of GM should include tests on humans. That would be outside Defra's remit, claims Morley. "It is not a matter for me. It's a matter for the FSA, and I understand it entails technical difficulties."
This all adds up to a substantially softer stance on GM than Meacher, and one more in line with PM Tony Blair. But Morley stresses this does not necessarily mean he is pro-GM.
He is keen to clarify the issue over DEFRA's reportedly anti-labelling stance: "Defra is definitely pro-labelling because it is an issue of consumer choice. We were just saying that with some products, it's not possible to identify traces of GM without a paper trail ­ and that could be open to fraud."
Last week, the European Parliament approved legislation stipulating that all foods containing more than 0.9% GMOs ­ including trace ingredients (such as flour produced from GM maize and some oils) ­ should be clearly labelled as such. It will be down to the grocery industry to properly police the paper trail, warns Morley. "It's now a regulation and the obligations are clear: if you're processing a product with GM in it you have to put a label on it. If you are selling a product that is GM, it will have to be clearly labelled."
It won't be easy, he concedes, especially as the 0.9% threshold is likely to come down. "It is realistic now but may come down as tests improve."
However, he says, even if the government does eventually endorse GM, the market will ultimately determine its fate. "We should be guided by good science, but it would certainly affect the development of GM crops in the UK if retailers said no."
The results of the cost benefits study are due to be published shortly and the field scale evaluations, the findings of which will be debated publicly, conclude at the end of the month. Meanwhile, there is still a lot of work to do before a decision can be made, stresses Morley, pointing to the issues of cross-contamination, co-existence and liability. "The GM debate is not easy ­ but you have to take the rough with the smooth," he says. "It's a big responsibility. But my last gig as minister for fisheries wasn't easy."