The UK government has been warned by the chair of its GM technology watchdog that conflict could erupt in rural communities if it mishandles the decision on whether to allow GM crops to be commercially grown in the UK.

The comments by Professor Malcolm Grant, chair of the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission (AEBC), follow recommendations by the Commission (published yesterday) for a public debate on whether GM crops should be allowed to be commercially grown in this country. 

Professor Grant told the Financial Times:  "The potential is there for rural conflict, which is why this is about more than food safety.

"The Government has to listen and be seen to be listening" he said.

Environmental pressure group Friends of the Earth (FoE) welcomed the AEBC proposals for a national debate, and said that the government must be prepared to ban GM crops if that is what the public wants.

Adrian Bebb, GM campaigner at FoE, said: "We welcome these proposals for public consultation on whether or not GM crops should be commercially grown in the UK. The government must start listening to people's genuine concerns about this new technology, and make it clear that they will prevent commercial development if that's what the public wants.

"This must be far more than a government PR exercise."