The GM industry has agreed to delay all commercial plantings until the results of scientific trials of the effects of GM crop management on British farmland wildlife. The Government's conservation advisers, English Nature, fear these effects could be disastrous.
If the trials, due to finish at the end of 2002, show "significant damage" to insects, plants, flowers and birds, commercial GM plantings would never take place, the Environment minister, Michael Meacher, said. "If there are significant environmental downsides, we will not proceed," he said.
However, the Government ignited a new row when it admitted yesterday that some GM crops from the trials - spring and autumn oilseed rape and forage maize - might enter the human food chain. This would be the first GM material grown and offered for consumption in Britain, and would provide ammunition for eco-activists who have trashed trial plantings, claiming they are commercial growings by the back door.
The trials, to evaluate the effect on wildlife of the powerful new weedkillers that GM crops are engineered to tolerate, have been going on for a year.
This year's crops were destroyed after harvest, as none has yet received all appropriate growing licences. But if any receive the licences before the trials end, the Government says, it will have no power to order them destroyed.
Mr Meacher said the chance of the licences coming through was slight. Officials of the GM industry body, the Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops (Scimac), insisted that any such produce would be clearly labelled if it was sold. However, environmental groups questioned whether consumers would really be told that dairy products had come from cattle fed on crops from the trials.
"The fact that the Government is unable to guarantee that none of the crops from the trials would be able to enter the food chain has further undermined the credibility of their position," Friends of the Earth food campaigner, Pete Riley, said.
The row about the trial produce diverted attention from the agreement, negotiated with Scimac, which represents exactly the four-year moratorium called for by English Nature - to the initial annoyance of Tony Blair. It extends for a further three years an initial year's delay on commercial plantings, which ended recently. Four growing seasons is seen as the minimum time necessary for the test data to be gathered.
The agreement has nothing to do with food safety; it is concerned only with the environmental effects of growing GM crops, in particular the use of the new generation of powerful "broad spectrum" weedkillers.
It is feared that when sprayed, these herbicides may wipe out all insects, flowers, plants and bird life in the fields concerned, leaving just the crops as "green concrete". In a countryside that has lost many wild flowers and seen some bird populations halved because of intensive farming, this would be catastrophic.
"We have been expressing concern about the management of GM herbicide- tolerant crops for two years, and we very much welcome this agreement," said Dr Keith Duff, English Nature's chief scientist.
The trials began this year with large plantings of herbicide-tolerant oilseed rape and forage maize on seven farms in England and attracted the wrath of green groups.
In the next three years, a maximum of 25 fields of up to 10 acres each will be planted with each of the three trial crops - up to 75 fields in all.
The results will be evaluated by a special scientific steering committee and the data made public, Mr Meacher said.Reuse content