Defiant ministers back 25 more GM trials

Opposition to controversial experiments is swept aside as government ploughs on with tests to determine effect on countryside
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The Independent Online

Twenty-five new trial sites where genetically modified oilseed rape will be planted this month were announced yesterday by the Government, as it ignored concern over the distances between GM and conventional crops.

Twenty-five new trial sites where genetically modified oilseed rape will be planted this month were announced yesterday by the Government, as it ignored concern over the distances between GM and conventional crops.

The Commons Select Committee on Agriculture had called earlier yesterday for an urgent review of the distances separating the trials from other crops before any more went ahead. But the Government announced the new plantings with the same buffers as before, the maximum being 200 metres.

The MPs' demand came in their report on the Advanta Seeds affair, Britain's worst GM pollution incident, in which 34,000 acres on farms in the UK were planted with Canadian oilseed rape that was supposedly GM-free but had in fact been contaminated in Canada by pollen from a neighbouring GM crop understood to have been growing up to four kilometres away - certainly at a much greater range than any observed in the British trials.

The MPs, who severely criticised the Government over its handling of the incident in the spring, said that this year's batch of conventional oilseed rape seed must be tested and certified as free from GM content.

Their report went on: "For farmers near the field trials, it is also vital that they can be sure that their crops are protected as far as possible from inadvertent cross-pollination which will require a rapidassessment of the consultation on segregation distances, and an equally rapid implementation of the advice which emerges as a result."

But it became clear yesterday that neither the assessment nor the advice would be available before September, some considerable time after the next set of trial GM crops are in the ground. The Government says it will not be able to make a decision until the Canadian authorities have reported to them on the contamination, and this could take several weeks.

Ministers revealed in May that a batch of Advanta Seeds products bought by up to 600 farms over the past two years had been contaminated. Although Nick Brown, the Minister of Agriculture, stressed that the contamination posed no threat to human health or the environment, he authorised farmers to rip up the crops and Advanta offered them compensation.

In their report, the MPs found that the biotechnology company had first alerted the Government to the problem as early as mid-April, some four weeks before the public was informed.

Crucially, Advanta Seeds also warned that it would not make its oilseed rape available in the UK next spring unless ministers acted to provide better GM regulation.

The Commons committee said there had been "confusion" inside Whitehall over whether the Ministry of Agriculture or the Department of the Environment should handle the affair. The MPs said that Britain should have followed the example of the Swedish government, which had gone public about its own contamination problem as soon as it was informed by Advanta.

"Clearer procedures are required for dealing with incidents of this kind. It was obvious that confusion existed as to which ministry should lead on this issue," their report said. "The lengthy internal debate on this incident contrasts with the robust rapid Swedish disclosure in like circumstances."

Seed companies needed "urgent regulatory guidance" to try to prevent future mix-ups, the cross-party committee said. It called for input from the newly established Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission.

David Curry, Tory MP and chairman of the select committee, said that the Government should now take sensible measures to find out "how we can grow these products without any risk. It is inevitable that we will insist on greater separation distances," he said.

The Liberal Democrats' agriculture spokesman, Colin Breed, said that the MPs' report was a damning indictment of the Government's "dither, delay and cover-up" of the Advanta incident. "The report highlights the underhand way in which the Government have tried to cover up the cross-contamination issue. They were forced into the disclosure by the swift and decisive action of the Swedish government in similar circumstances," he said.

The environmental campaign group Friends of the Earth said that the latest announcement on the GM trials programme was "environmental risky, scientifically worthless and politically stupid".

Adrian Bebb, a GM campaigner, said: "The public have shown they don't want these crops. Genetic pollution is now threatening our environment and the livelihoods of neighbouring farmers."

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