MPs 'misled' over extent of GM fish research

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Ministers have ordered an inquiry after it emerged that Parliament was misled about the extent of Government-funded research into genetically modified fish.

Investigations by The Independent on Sunday have revealed that Stephen Byers, then Trade secretary, failed to disclose to MPs earlier this year that nearly £140,000 was spent on attempts to produce GM rainbow trout and brown trout in the mid-1980s.

The oversight has been blamed on poor record keeping by the Natural Environment Research Council, which funded the studies. But Alan Simpson, the Labour MP for Nottingham South, has demanded an apology from the Department for Trade and Industry.

Complaints have also been levelled at the European Commission by Caroline Lucas, the Green Euro-MP for London, after it emerged that its officials had failed to tell her about two EU-funded projects involving fish and mussels.

Despite widespread public and fishing industry opposition, the EU has funded 11 studies worth £4.7m over the past 15 years to produce fast-growing, sterile and disease-free GM fish.

The scientists involved believe this research can meet strong concerns about the serious ecological damage that GM fish could cause in the wild, and improve the likelihood of GM fish being commercially farmed in Europe.

The undisclosed projects involved a £160,000 Franco-Portuguese study into viruses in transgenic shellfish. A team of geneticists at Southampton University was given £108,000 for a joint project with Chilean scientists involving implanting foreign genes into adult fish. That research has since been taken up by a Norwegian bio-technology company.

Ms Lucas said this EU research undermined the commission's claims that Europe's fishing industry had to be ecologically sound. "Trying to be at the forefront of GM fish research is one of the most damaging ways of undermining biodiversity. There is a yawning gap between the rhetoric and the reality in the European Commission," she said.

After this newspaper first disclosed in April that three ministries had spent £2.7m on genetically enhanced and transgenic fish research, Mr Simpson asked ministers to detail every GM fish project funded by his department.

Mr Byers told the Commons the NERC had funded only one GM fish programme, due to finish next year, which would help detect modified genes in wild fish. The NERC has now admitted it funded three projects at Southampton University in the mid-1980s, which included "improving" rainbow trout and other fish by "direct genetic manipulation".

The DTI said: "There was no intention whatsoever deliberately to withhold information. If necessary a corrected answer will be given in the normal way as soon as possible."

Mr Simpson said that withholding information would increase public scepticism about the democratic process.