GM: The Secret Files

Ministers are funding genetically modified crop projects with scores of millions of pounds every year and are colluding with a biotech company to ease its GM tests, the IoS can reveal. Geoffrey Lean on a murky tale that Whitehall tried to hide

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Ministers are secretly easing the way for GM crops in Britain, while professing to be impartial on the technology, startling internal documents reveal.

The documents, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, show that the Government colluded with a biotech company in setting conditions for testing GM potatoes, and gives tens of millions of pounds a year to boost research into modified crops and foods.

The information on funding proved extraordinarily difficult to get, requiring three months of investigation by an environmental pressure group, a series of parliamentary questions, and three applications for the information.

Friends of the Earth finally obtained still partial information last week which shows that the Government provides at least £50m a year for research into agricultural biotechnology, largely GM crops and food. This generosity contrasts with the £1.6m given last year for research into organic agriculture, in spite of repeated promises to promote environmentally friendly, "sustainable" farming.

Publicly ministers claim to be neutral over GM. Four years ago, at the height of controversy about plans to introduce modified crops to Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair insisted that the Government was "neither for nor against" them. The then Environment minister, Elliot Morley, added: "There is an open and transparent process for their assessment and all relevant material will be put in the public domain." Last month the Environment Secretary, Hilary Benn, reiterated: "There is no change in the Government's position."

But the documents show that ministers have been far from even-handed. One set, obtained by the campaigning group GM Freeze, clearly demonstrate that the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) allowed the biotech giant BASF to help to set the conditions for field trials it has conducted on modified potatoes. On 1 December last year the company was given permission to plant 450,000 modified potatoes in British fields over the next five years, in a series of 10 trials. The set of emails and letters between Defra and the company reveal that officials repeatedly went to remarkable lengths to make sure the trial conditions, supposed to protect the environment and farmers, were "agreeable" to BASF.

On 29 September a department official emailed BASF to inform it of a recommendation by the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (Acre), its official advisers on risks to health and the environment from GM, that "the land should be left fallow for two years following each trial" and added "I would like to know whether you think that this is workable for you". The official pointed out that other EU countries had specified that "berries/true seed should be removed from the trial" but that Acre had "not specified this because the committee believes that this would be a very big job". The email went on: "If you think this is completely unworkable, I think the committee may be prepared to accommodate a reduction of this fallow period to one year but there may be other conditions (eg removal of flowers/berries)."

The writer added: "In addition to this, Acre has recommended a particular tillage regime, hopefully you are able to accommodate this."

On 6 October Defra sent BASF a draft of the consent to the trials, adding: "Please let me know whether or not the conditions as they stand would be agreeable to BASF or whether there are any conditions that would be difficult to meet."

BASF replied on 26 October that it believed that the "probable conditions" were "very agreeable to us", adding: "We hope that the final conditions will not change too much."

On 9 November Defra again emailed BASF to check that one of the conditions "does not affect your plans", and five days later was in touch again to say that it had "redrafted" another "in response to your concerns".

Yet the department insisted in a written statement last week: "There is no truth in any allegation that Defra was in any way influenced by BASF in relation to the terms under which BASF could conduct trials on GM potatoes in the UK."

Pete Riley, the campaign director of GM Freeze, said: "That is simply not correct. The documents clearly show that Defra colluded with BASF to ensure that Acre's conditions for growing their GM crop were to their liking. Its role is to protect the environment and public health. It is supposed to be a watchdog, but the documents reveal it to be the industry's lapdog."

Peter Ainsworth, the Conservative environment spokesman, added: "This is a government department that claims to be objective and science-based in its approach to biotechnology, but clearly it has bent over backwards to model its conditions on the requirements of BASF."

A spokesman for BASF said: "I do not think that they granted us any concessions that would not normally have been granted."

The funding disclosure came when the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) – which is funded by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills – revealed that it gave £39.3m to its seven sponsored institutes for research on "agricultural biotechnology" in 2006-07.

The sum has more than doubled, from £15.5m, since 1997, even though the prospects for GM crops in Britain have been declining in this period, with ministers admitting three years ago that none would be grown commercially "for the foreseeable future".

Besides this "core strategic grant", the BBSRC also gives tens of millions of pounds a year for similar research to universities and other institutes.

In 2003-04 this sum totalled £27.1m. The BBSRC told Friends of the Earth that it could not provide it with up-to-date information until January, unless it paid a fee of £750, because this "would take considerable effort, beyond the appropriate limit" to assemble. But the figure is believed not to have fallen over the past three years. On top of the BBSRC funding, Defra provided £12.6m for agricultural biotechnology research in 2005-06, the last year for which figures are available.

Nor is it clear how much money goes to genetic modification, since the BBSRC defines agricultural biotechnology as "the application of molecular genetic and other modern biological techniques to crops, livestock and disease-causing organisms".

It says it is not yet able to provide information on the proportion that has recently been devoted to GM, as opposed to other techniques. But figures on its website show that in 2000-01 about half of its core strategic grant to the seven institutes was spent on the technology.

In contrast, Defra spent £1.6m on research "relating to organic farming", while BBSRC refuses to provide any funds at all, saying it "does not fund applied work on entire farming systems".

It justifies spending so much taxpayers' money on GM before, as it admits, "there is any clear evidence that the public wants them" by saying that research must retain "the flexibility to remain competitive and to respond to changing global situations and changes in consumer demand".

Yet when the Government officially asked the public, four years ago, about their preferences, 86 per cent said they would not be happy to eat GM foods. By contrast, sales of organic produce rose by 22 per cent last year to break through the £2bn barrier. More than half of Britons now buy it, at least from time to time.

The BBSRC says that its funding for the research on GM crops would continue even if there was "a Europe-wide ban" on growing them commercially.

Kirtana Chandrasekaran, Friends of the Earth's food campaigner, said: "The Government's support for GM crops and foods is out of all proportion to its non-existent benefits, let alone the public's non-existent desire to consume them.

"Despite continually promising to support sustainable agriculture, it is spending tens of millions on a technology that has fallen flat on its face while starving organic farming, which is producing food that people want to buy.

"It is also staggering that there is no clear information in the public domain on exactly how much money is going into GM research, and that it has proved so hard to get even partial figures out into the light of day."

A farmer's story: 'It's all about control of food production'

The spectre of GM contamination has cost John Turner dear. A succession of trials near his 250 acre farm in Little Bytham, south Lincolnshire, between 2000 and 2002 forced him to stop growing certain crops – suffering heavy financial losses as a result.

"It was a nightmare and we just felt absolutely powerless to do anything over it at all," he recalled. "Without any real protection against contamination, we were forced to stop growing crops like maize that could be vulnerable to cross-pollination. It wasn't easy but it was preferable to the damage that could have been done if our crops were no longer GM-free. We feel that we are in remission at the moment, but every few months there seems to be a new PR push from the GM lobby."

The facts are being twisted to fit a commercial agenda, according to Mr Turner: "There is no sound science behind the push for GM crops. It's all about money and control of not only the seeds but also food production from one end to the other. The more I find out about it the less I understand why there has been this impetus to force this technology on farming. It has been hugely over-hyped by those trying to promote it. There are plenty of ways of improving crops that don't involve swapping genes around.

"But farmers could sleepwalk into using GM crops and by the time they realise the proposed benefits just aren't there they will not be in a position to go back to a GM-free style of agriculture – that's the danger and that's been the experience of farmers in other parts of the world."

Jonathan Owen

To have your say on this or any other issue visit www.independent.co.uk/IoSblogs

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