GM crops could harm property values, surveyors warn

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House prices may be adversely affected by the proximity of genetically modified crop sites, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors said yesterday as the National GM Debate was launched in London.

With the debate chairman, Professor Malcolm Grant, warning that the Government should take people's opinions into account in deciding whether large-scale GM agriculture should go ahead, Rics said there would be "chaos in the countryside" with property unless a stringent GM site registration scheme was brought in.

Although the Government is obliged under European law to keep a register of those areas where GM crops are being grown, Rics said it was concerned that insufficient thought had been given to how such a list would be drawn up and maintained.

"GM crops do not respect boundary lines and this is one of the biggest problems," said Louis Armstrong, chief executive of Rics.

"People have a right to know if their neighbours are growing GM crops as it may impact on their future land-use decisions, and ultimately the value of their property. This problem is not restricted to the countryside; people living on the outskirts of urban areas will be equally affected."

He added: "We must have a system where the location of GM crops is strictly registered, interested parties notified well in advance of planting, and the public given full access to all information. Rics is yet to be convinced by the Government that the current plans for a register will accurately record where GM crops are being grown."

Even with a land register in place, he said, surveyors could foresee a number of scenarios where conflicts of interest might occur. Accurate information on where GM crops were being grown was essential for people wishing to buy or rent land, allotments or a house with a garden to grow organic or non-GM vegetables and plants.

It was also necessary for existing organic or non-GM farmers who needed to know the farming intentions of their neighbours, for financial institutions lending against land and property, and for the consumer choice of GM and non-GM food and other products.

Some of these topics will be aired in the National GM Debate, which lasts six weeks and will sound out public opinion on GM technology. The Government will decide in the autumn whether GM crops should be grown commercially in Britain. Recent opinion polls have shown the majority of the public is against the technology, although Tony Blair and a number of ministers are keen supporters.

Launching the debate in London Professor Grant, chairman of the Government's GM advisory body, the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Council, warned ministers that they should listen to people's views.

The Government's position is that its hands are tied by European Union legislation, with GM crops being authorised in Brussels rather than London, and that once authorisation is given, public opinion is - in effect - irrelevant.

But the chairman, a former professor of land economy at Cambridge and the new Provost of University College London, said he would be "dismayed" if public feeling was not considered when the Government made its GM decision.

"It has been unusual - until recently - for Governments to act otherwise than in accordance with public opinion as they perceive it," he said. "I would be surprised if the Government moved rapidly on decision making on GM crops without the measure of public opinion that we will get from this exercise."

He did not agree that the Government was locked into a particular stance by EU law. "The Government is a member state of the EU. It is not as if it is a subject, ruled by elsewhere. It participates in law making," he said. But he added that the present GM crop licensing system "does ignore to a large extent ethical, moral and social concerns".

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At last, the great debate has begun

By Matthew Beard

As Gina Downes emerged from the Hydraulics and Pneumatics exhibition inside Birmingham's sprawling National Exhibition Centre, she was drawn towards the seminar room hosting the first leg of the government-sponsored debate on genetically modified crops.

Pointing at a protest banner hoisted by Friends of the Earth, the conference centre worker asked: "What does the O mean in GMO?"

The answer is organism. But the question betrayed the task facing the Government as it seeks to promote wider understanding of GM issues and allay fears that it is being unduly influenced by big business.

A national tour will include visits to Swansea, Taunton, Belfast, Glasgow and Harrogate over the next two weeks. The organisers from the Department of Food, Environment and Rural Affairs will have been encouraged by a near-capacity attendance of 180 delegates at the inaugural event.

Each delegate was required to book his or her ticket, deterring all but the best informed, and a dire lack of signs at the NEC meant the meeting would not attract the casual passer-by. Instead, organisers hoped for a dissemination of information from delegates at county and local level.

Events were dominated by groups and individuals critical of the government stance on GM, including Friends of the Earth, the Consumers' Association, the Soil Association and individual organic farmers.

But equally determined to have their voices heard were a few representatives of the biotechnology industry such as the umbrella group, the Agricultural Biotechnology Commission.

After a video outlining the risks and benefits of GM, delegates sat in groups of eight to 10 at circular tables and were asked to air their views. John Dick, "a member of the public", summed up for one table, saying: "The problem is how do you get people involved? This room does not contain ordinary people, but people motivated to come here. Many of us don't understand the science and the environmental concerns."

After the two-hour session, Malcolm Grant, chairman of the steering committee said: "I think it went quite well."