Europe to act on GM pollution of organic farms

Ministers want Britons to have the power to sue GM companies, and force them to pay massive damages if they harm health, the environment or livelihoods.

They are backing moves in the European Parliament to make Monsanto and other giant firms financially responsible for any ill-effects of their activities. They are particularly keen to safeguard organic farmers, who face ruin if their crops are contaminated with pollen from GM crops.

The measure would dramatically shift the balance of power in the management of GM foods and crops to the public, while calling the bluff of the firms, who have long claimed GM produce is harmless.

Last week the European parliament's environment committee passed an amendment to an EU directive imposing full liability on the companies for damage done by their products. The amendment goes before the full parliament next month and, if passed, will be sent to EU environment ministers for approval.

Michael Meacher, the environment minister, has already called on the European Commission to draw up a similar measure, and he will raise it again at a meeting with his EU colleagues this week.

Right-wing MEPs and David Bowe MEP, the Labour spokesman on the environment committee, predict a bitter battle. "The companies have been mounting a huge campaign behind the scenes to kill the amendment," he says. "But they must take responsibility for their products, and the public must be protected."

Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, hailed the amendment as "tremendous". He says 30 organic farmers are close enough to the field trials of GM crops announced 10 days ago, for their produce to be contaminated by bees carrying pollen from the plots.

If this happened, the farmers could lose their licences as organic growers, threatening their livelihood. Mr Holden says they have to have the right to take the GM companies to court for compensation.

Under the provisions, companies could also be sued if genes from their crops escaped and created "superweeds", or if GM foods were found to damage health.