A DAMNING scientific study, carried out for the Government two years ago but not published until now, has concluded that genetically engineered oilseed rape could breed with ordinary farmers' crops and make them "inedible". It says that "contamination" of farmers' ordinary fields is "inevitable" under current farming practices.
The report was carried out by the prestigious Scottish Crops Institute for the Department of the Environment. Its most worrying conclusion is that GM oilseed rape is much hardier than previously thought and can survive to breed and pass on its traits to ordinary plants of the same species. It found that the pollen from genetically altered oilseed rape could travel far farther than the designated distance between trial-crops fields and create hybrids which could ruin farmers' ordinary crops.
It also warns that unless fields full of engineered plants are completely isolated - which under the current regulatory regime cannot be done - there is no way of stopping hybrids from growing.
The report's existence has sparked protests by environmentalists who say it proves that ministers have known of the risks to Britain's farms for two years but have carried on supporting GM crops regardless.
"While the Government denies suppressing the report on the environmental risks of GM crops, this shows that these concerns are very real," said Tony Juniper, Friends of the Earth policy director.
"This disclosure renders the reassuring signals on the safety and desirability of the crops very hard to swallow."
The report, titled Investigation of feral oilseed rape populations: genetically modified organisms research report no 12, was published this month after the furore over GM food blew up. It was recently circulated to scientists on the Government's Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment which gives consents to grow and market GM seeds in Britain.
Members of the committee have privately expressed "surprise" and "worry" that they had not seen the report before.
It includes a preface from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions dated 1997.
The research on pollination and inter-breeding of GM oilseed was carried out on oilseed rape populations by the Scottish Crops Institute between 1992 and 1997.
The report says that the evidence "indicates the inevitable contamination under current agricultural practice of non-modified oilseed rape fields by pollen imported from GM fields of the crop. This has important implications for growers."
A spokeswoman for the National Farmers' Union said it would be examining the report and wanted "all the scientific evidence" and "appropriate tests" to be examined before decisions were made about planting GM food.
The Family Farmers' Association, which represents small traditional farms, said that it was "very concerned".
"Any farmer would be terrified to hear this," said Pippa Woods, its chairman.
"There still doesn't seem to be proper proof that GM crops are OK. We don't know whether to believe the chemical companies or not."
The report also warns that oilseed rape grown for its oil, for use in margarine, for example, could be ruined if GM oilseed pollen which has been engineered to be inedible starts cross-breeding with it.
In the United States, inedible genetically modified oilseed rape is widely grown for use in industrial processes such as paint production.
It is not yet grown commercially in Britain although around 100 fields of GM oilseed rape are being grown as part of a national testing programme.
The report further warns that GM crops would have to be "isolated" from normal fields to cut down on such cross-contamination. At present, although rules vary, only six-metre breaks are required between the planting of test GM oilseed rape fields and ordinary farmers' crops.
"The use of isolation distances around novel oilseed rape fields could minimise this to an acceptable level," the report says. "However, thorough elimination of the oilseed rape seed bank would be required before any edible types were subsequently grown."
Last week the Government, in an attempt to assuage fears about GM crops, issued a report to all MPs. This said it would stop commercial planting of crops if farm-scale tests revealed "problems".
"If there is a risk that genetically modified genes will be transferred to other species and cause an environmental problem, the crop would not be given an approval," it said.
LEADER, PAGE 28