Ministers to approve commercial growth of GM crops next month

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The Government will next month approve the commercial growing of genetically modified (GM) crops in Britain for the first time.

The Government will next month approve the commercial growing of genetically modified (GM) crops in Britain for the first time.

But ministers will impose strict conditions on the cultivation of GM maize and ban commercial GM sugar beet and oilseed rape after trials showed that they could be more damaging to the environment than conventional crops. The decision to go ahead follows this week's recommendations by experts on the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (Acre).

Opponents furiously attacked the prospect of GM plants entering mainstream farming last night but said that supporters of the technology still faced a long battle before the first crops could be planted. They criticised farm-scale tests as flawed and said more research was needed before GM varieties were licensed for widespread use.

Margaret Beckett, Secretary of State for the Environment, will impose the stringent regulations after Acre concluded that farm-scale trials showed GM maize could be less damaging to the environment than conventional varieties.

Farmers are unlikely to be able to go ahead before 2005 and will be subject to similar restrictions to those governing the trials, which specify the type of herbicide and the variety of GM seed they can use, and the type of plants they can grow in neighbouring fields.

A senior government source said: "There will be a very rigid procedure to be observed for maize. The announcement will be before the end of February."

Michael Meacher, the former environment minister, said that questions over health risks had still to be resolved. He said: "I do not believe the Government has a mandate to proceed with the commercialisation of any GM crop."

Pete Riley, a senior GM campaigner for Friends of the Earth, claimed that low demand from consumers would leave few farmers prepared to invest in the new technology.

A spokeswoman for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds also called for more research. Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat environment spokesman, said: "It seems the only time the Government wants to do something on the environment is when it wants to damage it."

But government sources believe the restrictions will be so tight that many farmers will be put off planting the first GM commercial crops in the UK.

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