A nationwide government-sponsored debate on genetically modified foods due to be launched tomorrow has been criticised as a potential façade that could prevent members of the public expressing their opinions and lead to the wide-scale introduction of an agricultural technology that few people want.

The debate, to be called "GM Nation?", involves a series of six regional debates - to be staged in Birmingham, Swansea, Glasgow, Belfast, Taunton and Harrogate - followed by a string of meetings at a more local level. The debate is due for completion in mid-July.

An alliance of environmental pressure groups and consumer associations has written to environment secretary Margaret Beckett criticising the way the debate has been set up. They say it will not give members of the public sufficient time or information to form an opinion on GM and express it.

The timing of the debate has also come under scrutiny. It comes just a couple of months ahead of the results of a four-year farm-scale trial into GM crops, and the Consumer Association said it would have made more sense to have had the debate once the results of the trials were known.

The eight groups that make up the alliance are the Consumers' Association, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, National Federation of Women's Institutes, National Trust, Unison, the RSPB and Sustain.

Tory criticism on labelling stance

Meanwhile the Conservative Party, currently in opposition in the UK lower house, has stepped up pressure on the government to embrace the new technology. The government will decide later this year whether to license commercial GM crops. The Conservative Party has urged the government to support EU plans for GM labelling.

The Food Standards Agency said the government was not opposed to labelling in principle, but said the EU plans were unenforceable, as they would require labelling even of foods that only contained miniscule traces of modified material.

However, if the UK ends up as the only EU member state to oppose the labelling legislation, this will fuel criticism that the UK is overly concerned to align itself with the US rather than the European Union of which it is a part.