Gene-altered food grown in breach of rules

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A NUMBER of biotechnology companies and researchers broke government rules in growing genetically-modified crops in Britain, according to an independent report.

But inspectors for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which polices such crops, said it might be almost impossible to secure a conviction in court where companies do break the law in this way.

Four companies are named in the latest report by the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (Acre) for breaking procedures intended to stop the modified crops from crossbreeding with nearby plants.

Such crossbreeding could otherwise lead to "superweeds" which are resistant to all sorts of herbicides, or even to completely unpredictable plant mutations.

Among those cited by Acre was Monsanto, manufacturer of the genetically- modified soya grown in the US and now used in many staple foods.

Despite its experience in developing transgenic crops in the US, in February the company was discovered to have too small a "buffer zone" between plots of herbicide-resistant oilseed rape at one of its British sites. The inspectors from the HSE forced the company to dig up the entire area of 950 square metres and treat it with Paraquat to destroy any remnants of the altered plants.

Other companies which were caught out by the HSE inspectors for failing to follow experimental protocols included Nickerson Biocem, based in Cambridge, AgrEvo, from Frankfurt, and Plant Genetic Systems of Ghent, Belgium. The Scottish Crop Research Institute and the National Institute of Agricultural Botany were also caught breaking Acre's rules. In all, HSE inspectors visited 70 sites last year.

John Beringer, the chairman of Acre, which advises the Government on the safety of releasing genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), said that naming such companies was "worth many times more than fines".

This may be just as well - for the HSE said yesterday that it might prove almost impossible to convict a company for breaking the law relating to GMO release. Technically, each plot of genetically-modified crops is covered by a "consent" issued under the Environmental Protection Act by the Government, on the recommendation of Acre.

Where the consent has been breached, the organisation which took it out is in theory liable to an unlimited fine under the Act.

But to secure a conviction, "we would have to prove in court that there was a risk through their actions," said Andrew Tummey, the HSE's specialist investigator, who unearthed many of the transgressions cited by Acre. The problem though is that it may be impossible to prove that damage has been done until a "superweed" has evolved - by which time its seeds could be spreading over the countryside. Alternatively, nothing might have happened.