The UK government has said it agrees "in principle" to the commercial cultivation of genetically modified herbicide-tolerant maize.

In a decision that is likely to anger environmental lobby groups, the UK's environment secretary Margaret Beckett said the government-backed science review had concluded that there was no scientific case for ruling out all GM crops or products.

Beckett said the government expects coexistence measures to be in place before any GM crops are grown commercially, and that commercial cultivation of GM maize is not anticipated before spring 2005 at the earliest.

She proposed that farmers who wish to grow GM crops should be required to comply with a code of practice based on the European Union's 0.9% labelling threshold, and that this code should have statutory backing.

Beckett added that the government would provide guidance to farmers interested in establishing voluntary GM-free zones in their areas, consistent with EU legislation.

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

"But equally there is no scientific case for a blanket ban on the use of genetic modification. I know of no one who argues, for instance, that the GM tool alone can solve the problems of the developing world. But it is less than honest to pretend, especially against a background of climate change, that GM has not the potential to contribute to some solutions," she added.
Environmental groups were quick to voice their disapproval of the decision.

"The government must reconsider its plans," Friends of the Earth director Tony Juniper was quoted by Reuters as saying. "Tony Blair must not ignore the threat GM poses to our food, farming and the environment."