'Secret test' threat to GM crop trials

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Britain's embattled GM crop trials were plunged into fresh controversy yesterday when officials admitted keeping a crucial test secret.

Britain's embattled GM crop trials were plunged into fresh controversy yesterday when officials admitted keeping a crucial test secret.

The secrecy, which contradicts repeated government assurances that the trials would be open, is bound to spark a furious row as an unprecedented official public hearing into GM crops opens tomorrow.

It will also cast doubt over the granting of formal approval for a new GM maize to be sown in Britain.

Environmentalists are planning to turn the hearing - over whether the maize, produced by the GM company Aventis, can be placed on the official National Seed List - into the biggest public examination yet into GM crops. By entering 67 objections to the listing of the maize - the first of a series of GM seeds due to seek approval - they have forced the Government to hold the hearing, which is expected to last 10 weeks, under the little-used 1982 Seed Regulations.

The secrecy row is a new set-back for the Government and the GM industry after the acquittal, 10 days ago, of Lord Melchett and 27 other Greenpeace protesters, who destroyed a GM crop in Norfolk.

The row centres on a GM trial site at Dartington, in Devon, which became a cause célÿbre two years ago after a farmer claimed it could contaminate his organic crops.

After the farmer unsuccessfully appealed to the High Court to stop the trial, the field was invaded by local protesters who uprooted the plants.

The National Institute of Agricultural Botany, which was carrying out the trials, had agreed to supply information about it to the Farm Association, one of its main opponents. But after the invasion, its director, John MacLeod, wrote to the association to say he could no longer provide the information because of "the total destruction of that trial".

But last week, the association found that information gathered from the trial site two months after they thought the crops had been totally destroyed, is to be used as crucial evidence to justify placing the new GM maize on the National Seed List. It suspected that the results might have been "fabricated".

But yesterday the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) said there had been a second GM crop on the site which had not been destroyed. It said the letter to the Soil Association had been carefully worded because the institute had not wanted to "volunteer information that could have caused another crop to have been destroyed". Last night, Harry Hadaway of the Soil Association said: "Ministers have repeatedly assured us that there would be no secrecy over the trial programme.

"We are shocked that Maff appears to have sanctioned concealing this trial which could have contaminated organic crops and the surrounding environment. The concerns of the local community were obviously completely disregarded. How many more sites have been hidden?"