GM seed firm threatens to sue Government

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The Independent Online

The company at the centre of Britain's worst GM pollution incident is threatening to sue the Government for more than £1.5m over its handling of the affair.

The company at the centre of Britain's worst GM pollution incident is threatening to sue the Government for more than £1.5m over its handling of the affair.

Advanta Seeds UK Ltd paid out the huge sum to about 400 farmers in England and Scotland who were forced to destroy crops contaminated with genetically modified (GM) oilseed rape. But the Canadian-owned biotechnology company believes it was "bounced" into the move by Nick Brown, the Minister of Agriculture, and is now looking to recover its costs. In evidence to a parliamentary investigation into the incident, Advanta also claims that no supermarket can credibly guarantee its food is "GM free".

Environmentalists were appalled when it was revealed in May that Advanta oilseed rape planted across some 30,000 acres in Britain had been mixed up with its GM variant. Ministers, who knew about the incident for a month before telling the public, were forced to announce emergency measures to check seed imports and to review separation distances for GM trials.

Mr Brown considered ordering farmers to destroy the crops but was told by officials that he had no grounds to exercise such powers because there was no danger to public health or the environment. Instead of destroying the crops, Advanta wanted to segregate them and harvest them for export to countries where GM use is uncontroversial. A similar scheme worked in Germany, with crops used only for fuel.

However, Mr Brown gave a press briefing stating that his "personal view" was that it would be best to plough in the crops. Farmers felt they had no alternative but to follow the minister's advice and Advanta was forced to draw up its £1.5m compensation package.

Under a deal drawn up with the National Farmers' Union last month, Advanta agreed to pay about £1m to farmers in Scotland and £500,000 to their English counterparts. Crucially, however, it has not accepted legal liability for the accident.

In evidence to the Commons Select Committee on Agriculture, the company has warned that it is considering its legal position "with regard to the costs of the minister's unexpected remarks... Mr Brown's statements about his desire for a 'plough-in' were a complete surprise. He recognised publicly that he had no power to order it as he knew the crops posed no threat to human health or the environment," the company said.

"However, the briefing effectively removed any chance that the crop would be taken to harvest... It still seems a waste to have ploughed up a crop that presented no risk to health or the environment."

In its scathing assessment of the incident, Advanta blames the Government for failing to have any regulations for dealing with GM accidents. "Early political action to create a comprehensive regulatory framework would, at best, have prevented this incident from occurring," the company said.

Last night, Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, said Advanta's comments were further proof of the mismanagement of GM issues by the Government. He said: "Not content with causing untold misery to Britain's farmers, they've now managed to upset seed manufacturers. It is time we had a clear lead from Tony Blair, with real regulation that will protect both consumers and farmers."