Farmers can set up GM free zones

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The Independent Online

Farmers are to be allowed to set up voluntary "GM-free zones" in a major U-turn by the European Commission, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

Ministers have already hinted that they could use the new power - which comes into force next month - because it would help them to head off intensifying public and political opposition to genetically modified crops.

A series of damaging official reports on GM technology - including studies by Tony Blair's policy unit and chief scientist - has forced the Government to rethink plans to press ahead with GM crops.

The pressure on ministers is mounting. More than 30 local councils, as well as the Welsh Assembly and the Lake District National Park Authority, have declared themselves GM-free. And a dozen councils are to ask the European Union to ban GM crops from being planted in their areas.

Michael Meacher, the former environment minister, said the new EU policy was a "significant shift" and a "considerable advance" in official thinking.

Earlier this year, the Agriculture Commissioner, Franz Fischler, rejected calls for exclusion zones to be set up. But late last month he told EU farming ministers in Brussels that he now favoured setting up voluntary zones.

This would allow farmers, businesses and councils in an area to agree to declare themselves "GM-free", but they could also agree to set up "bio zones", where modified crops would be planted.