Britain tries to block vital GM safeguard

Britain is this week single-handedly setting out to sabotage a vital safeguard against farmers unwittingly growing GM crops, a secret document seen by The Independent on Sunday reveals.

The document – the final version of a negotiating text to be finalised by ministers from across Europe on Thursday – shows that the UK government is alone in opposing a provision that would keep GM contamination of seed to the "lowest possible" levels.

Without the safeguard, European farmers could sow billions of GM seeds every year without realising it, causing the modified crops to spread throughout the continent, which is at present almost entirely free of them.

The provision has been inserted into the text, which has been drawn up by France to lay down guidelines for using the technology, because conventional seeds are often mixed with small amounts of GM ones. One study found that two-thirds of US conventional crops are "contaminated" in this way.

Four years ago the EU drew up rules that would allow 0.5 per cent contamination of beet seeds, and 0.3 per cent of maize and oilseed rape ones. These would have allowed the unwitting growing of up to 4.5 billion GM oilseed rape plants, and 2.3 billion GM beet plants, across Europe every year, but they were dropped after protests.

Now every European government except Britain wants to reduce the permitted level to the lowest level that can be scientifically detected. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says it is being "pragmatic and proportionate" in opposing this, but Clare Oxborrow of Friends of the Earth says its position is "an indefensible threat to GM-free farming".