Government doubles number of GM crop trials

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The Government was accused last night of giving the biotechnology industry "a licence to pollute" after it was announced that the size of the trial programme for genetically modified crops is to be doubled.

The Government was accused last night of giving the biotechnology industry "a licence to pollute" after it was announced that the size of the trial programme for genetically modified crops is to be doubled.

A total of 96 new trial sites of genetically modified maize, oilseed rape and beet - up from the current 48 - will be sown throughout Britain this spring, the Ministry of Agriculture said, with buffer distances between the trial fields and conventional crops increased from 50 to 100 metres.

Organic farmers and environmental groups described the new separation distance as "pathetic" and said it would do nothing to reassure consumers or protect farmers' crops from contamination. Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, said: "This makes a mockery of all the arguments for bigger buffer zones between genetically modified crops and conventional food. What it amounts to is a licence to pollute for the trial crops. It is not good enough for consumers who do not want their food to be contaminated."

Organic farmers had asked ministers to guarantee that genetically modified field trials will not be allowed within six kilometres (3.75 miles) of organic farms to guarantee the foods' purity. GM pollen has been found up to 4 kms away and has been known to cross-pollinate with conventional varieties of crops, rendering them unsaleable in Britain.

The Department of Agriculture said the buffer zones it was putting in place would mean that "the resulting GM presence in neighbouringcrops would be extremely low."

Friends of the Earth said such guarantees showed that ministers had ignored the "overwhelming public rejection" of GM crops. Germany had scrapped plans for GM trials and had launched an entire rethink of policy because of BSE.

Adrian Bebb, campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: "It ignores reality. It ignores common sense and it leaves consumers with no choice. This is the biggest extension of GMtrials Britain has ever seen. These separation distances will do nothing to allay the fears of consumers. Genetically modified pollen has been found three miles away."

Tim Yeo, Tory agriculture spokesman, said the 100-metre separation distances were "inadequate in the light of what happened last year" when GM pollen was found in conventional crops. "To couple this with an announcement of 96 new trial sites is a kick in the teeth for organic farmers and consumers," he said. "The Government has simply ignored the evidence that cross-pollination can take place. The Government should be trying to rebuild confidence in this process, not further erode it."

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