Revealed: secret GM crop trials

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Top Secret trials of GM crops are under way in five British counties despite repeated government promises that it would never allow them to take place.

Top Secret trials of GM crops are under way in five British counties despite repeated government promises that it would never allow them to take place.

The secrecy surrounding the experiment is so tight that even Michael Meacher, the Environment minister in charge of GM crops, has been kept in the dark.

The trials were authorised by Nick Brown, the agriculture minister, but he is under no obligation to tell his colleagues about the sites, leaving Mr Meacher acutely embarrassed by today's revelation. He has constantly stressed the openness of the Government's GM tests.

The crop trials, authorised by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, are of the same GM maize as was destroyed by Lord Melchett and 27 other activists who were acquitted by a jury last month.

Tim Yeo, the shadow agricultural spokesman, said that Mr Meacher had written to him earlier this year giving the impression there were no secret trials. Last night he accused Mr Meacher of "a serious evasion", and demanded an explanation.

The experimental crops - in Oxfordshire, Somerset, North Yorkshire, Cambridgeshire and Shropshire - are of a maize genetically engineered by the Franco-German firm Aventis to withstand spraying by a herbicide.

The company is refusing to give evidence on its safety to an official public hearing which opened in London last Monday into whether it should be grown commercially in Britain. Environmentalists have already lodged 67 objections to the maize. So far the company has refused to produce witnesses for cross-examination resulting in a warning from the hearing's chairman, Alun Alesbury, that Aventis was damaging its case.

The GM maize is being grown on plots the size of tennis courts by the National Institute for Agricultural Botany, under contract to the Ministry of Agriculture. It is cultivated side by side with a conventional relative and then the crops are compared for yield, disease resistance, their ability to stay upright in harsh weather, and other characteristics.

These secret tests are entirely separate from the 25 farm-scale trials being carried out into the environmental safety of GM crops by Mr Meacher's Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Environment ministers constantly trumpet the openness of these trials, and insist on publishing six-figure grid references to them so that neighbouring farmers, local people, and objectors can pinpoint the fields involved.

By contrast, the Ministry of Agriculture says that it will, at most, only disclose the parishes where the tests are taking place, and then only on request. But late last week, despite being given 24 hours notice, it could only identify one parish - Rowton, in Shropshire - to the Independent on Sunday.

In June, Julia Drown, Labour MP for South Swindon, asked Mr Meacher to list any sites not publicised by his department. He replied that he had "no information" on them. The tests do not have to be disclosed to his department.

And on 25 April Mr Meacher wrote to Mr Yeo that there were no GM trials "apart from the GM herbicide-tolerant maize in the farm scale evaluations", the sites for which "six-figure grid references" were "widely available".

Yesterday Mr Yeo described the minister's letter as "a serious evasion, at the very least, if not actual deceit". He said the Government was "misleading people about what is going on".

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