Church ban on GM crop trials

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THE CHURCH of England has refused to allow the Government to use its land to conduct genetically modified crop trials.

The decision, which was prompted by the continuing controversy over the morality and safety of the technology, will come as a huge embarrassment to the Government.

The Central Science Laboratory, the main research arm of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, asked to lease the land at a meeting with Church Commissioners. However, The Independent has learnt that the commissioners blocked the move pending a full-scale inquiry into genetic modification and its "theological implications".

After objections from Christian Aid, English Nature, Friends of the Earth and others, the church's Ethical Investment Working Group will now spend several months weighing up the whole issue.

Christian Aid, which has declared that American companies are "selling suicide" to the Third World by forcing GM crops on to them, welcomed the decision to freeze the government application.

As a practising Christian, the Prime Minister will take particularly hard their accusations that genetic manipulation of crops is "unethical" and will ruin the livelihoods of poor farmers. The church's decision follows intense internal debate over the warm welcome some of its senior officers had given to GM technology.

The church owns more than 123,000 acres of agricultural land in Britain, worth some pounds 237m. At present, no church agricultural land is used for experimental or commercial genetically modified crops.

The science laboratory made the approach as the commissioners own the land surrounding its site in York, but fears over recent protests on GM trials are believed to have influenced their decision. Equally, it is understood the commissioners are worried the land may reduce in value because of bad publicity.

One church source confirmed that the inquiry will take several months and thus the ministry's request was unlikely to be granted. "GM trials are as controversial as any of the gay rights issues to hit the church in recent years. The church doesn't like confrontation and will avoid it if it can," he said.

A spokesman for the Church of England said that the working group needed "a period of further deliberation and reflection" before it could state a view about the Government's GM trials. "It wishes to deliberate further about this request, which is, if granted, likely to mean GM crop research on the land in question at some point in the future. The group is conscious that it is more important to come to a right view than a hasty one."

The Rev Paul Cawthorne, a vicar from Telford who has helped to sway the church hierarchy, welcomed the decision which, he said, accurately represented the views of most parishioners. "I'm pleased that the church has shown caution because expediting the commercialisation has led to a clouding of the moral issues," he said last night.

Andrew Simms of Christian Aid said: "We are not against trials in principle, but there are an awful lot of questions that have to be answered about them." Tim Cooper, chairman of Christian Ecology Link, said: "The use of farm-scale trials is premature and dangerous. Research should only be done in a closed environment for the foreseeable future."

Jim Thomas, GM campaigns officer for Greenpeace, said that the church's decision would be welcomed by nearly all churchgoers. "These farm-scale trials are very much a propaganda exercise by the Government and industry to make genetic pollution of the countryside inevitable. The church's caution is entirely in line with the public, who simply don't want these trials," he said.

Mr Blair has said he has an "open mind" on the issue, saying that the potential benefits should be investigated. He has warned that Britain could fall behind countries such as Germany, which are investing heavily to catch up with Britain's lead in biotechnology, and told Labour MPs earlier this year he was not prepared to kill off the GM industry.