Genetically altered maize has already arrived in Britain

Synthetic crop imported into UK without licence
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The Independent Online
Genetically engineered maize from the United States is already in Britain even though it has received no EU licence, one of Britain's largest grain and feed importers has told The Independent.

Maize gluten made from the US crop will be fed to farm animals. The importer, Cargills, which has also just taken delivery of the first harvest of genetically engineered soya beans from the US, says marketing of maize in this form is legal because it has been processed.

The European Commission still has to decide whether to allow the sale and the sowing of the maize inside the EU, two years after the firm which developed it first applied for permission. Today, environment ministers from the 15 member states, including John Gummer, will be briefed on the issue when they meet in Brussels.

The maize affair, unveiled by The Independent last week, has revealed loopholes in EU law covering genetically modified organisms (GMOs). For while the application for the new synthetic maize has run into severe delays, it has already begun to arrive in Europe from the US, where it has been approved, grown and harvested. No move has been made to prevent this happening - by Britain or any other member state.

The crop, made by the Swiss pharmaceuticals and chemicals giant CIBA, has also been approved in Canada and Japan. It contains a gene from a bacterium which gives resistance to an antibiotic, ampicillin.

It also contains genes from two other bacteria. One makes the plant resistant to a weed killer and the other allows the maize to poison the corn borer, a destructive caterpillar which is difficult to kill with pesticides because it feeds deep inside maize plants.

The fear, first raised by British experts, was that the antibiotic resistance gene could find its way from maize which had been eaten into one of the many types of bacteria living in the intestines of farm animals and humans. If a harmful strain of that bacteria then arose it could not be treated with ampicillin.

One source in the Department of the Environment said leaving the ampicillin resistance gene in the end product was ``sloppy genetic engineering''. While it was required to develop the new maize (see graphic) it could have been removed later on.

But CIBA says ampicillin resistance is already widespread in gut bacteria due to the over-use of this antibiotic. Furthermore, scientists have found a way of modifying ampicillin-type drugs to make them overcome the resistance problem.

The proposal to allow the marketing and growing of the new maize in Europe came from France. The EU directive which covers genetic engineering allows one country to scrutinise an application to market a new GMO then approve it on behalf of all the other member states - provided none objects.

But on this occasion some did, so the matter went to a vote. That failed to secure the necessary majority for the maize to be imported. The decision was them referred to the environment ministers from the 15 states, but they, too, failed to make a decision.

So the European Commission asked three EU expert committees covering pesticides, animal feeds and human food safety, for their views. Those are not expected for another week or two. While all this was going on the giant US maize crop - the world's largest - was being harvested and collected. CIBA's new maize had also been grown there for the first time this summer and comprised a little less than 1 per cent of the crop. Both conventional maize and the genetically modified kind were mixed together and it is now impossible to separate them.

The first of the crop to reach Britain and Europe a few weeks ago was processed maize gluten. The importers and the Government say the European directive does not cover this material, because heating and mashing has in effect destroyed the genes within it.

The European Commission has written to member states saying it understands thousands of tonnes of US maize have been arriving at major European ports including Rotterdam, Lisbon and Barcelona each week since the beginning of October.

It calls on them ``to organise inspections and other control measures'' to ensure the directive is complied with - which means no sale or release of the new maize inside Europe.

Last month the EU Environment Commissioner, Ritt Bjerregaard, declared: ``It will not be possible to import . . . genetically modified maize in accordance with the directive until the Commission has taken a decision.''

But Britain has not taken any steps to prevent imports. A Department of the Environment spokesman warned of the dangers of a trade war and said: ``The only way this could have been done was through concerted European action.''

If the three scientific committees and then the Commission give approval, large quantities of the new maize are expected to be grown in France and southern Europe where the corn borer is a real problem for farmers. It will then be imported into Britain, for use in a wide variety of human food and drink and animal feed stuffs.