GM foods campaign: Monsanto pleads guilty to flouting rules on crops

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The Independent Online
MONSANTO , the controversial biotech giant at the heart of the growing row over "Frankenstein foods", will this week plead guilty to criminal charges of flouting rules over the planting of genetically modified (GM) crops.

In the first case of its kind brought in Britain the company will admit breaking the regulations at a test site for its crops in Lincolnshire. The development will be a huge embarrassment for the company, which has been aggressively promoting GM foods.

It could not have come at a worse time for the US multinational with the country in an uproar over the issue, and the Independent on Sunday's campaign attracting massive political and public support. Today Baroness Young, chairman of English Nature - the Government's official wildlife watchdog - calls on page 30 for tougher conditions for such test sites and a delay on commercial planting until thorough research has been carried out.

The case, which will be heard at Caistor Magistrates' Court on Wednesday, has been brought by the official Health and Safety Executive after a routine inspection of the site, at nearby Rothwell, last June revealed that control measures designed to prevent GM crops cross-pollinating with nearby plants had been "partially removed". Environmentalists fear that "escaped" genes from the crops may create superweeds, and that once out they could never be recaptured.

Monsanto (slogan "Food - Health - Hope") and another firm, Perryfields Holdings, were supposed to leave a six-metre wide "pollen barrier" around the crop of GM oilseed rape to stop cross-fertilisation. But the inspectors found that the barrier was only two metres wide on one side of the test site.

The GM rape had already flowered by the time the inspection took place, and government advisers were informed that "pollination with the surrounding crop may already have taken place". The entire GM crop and all seed harvested within 50 metres of it had to be destroyed. No oil seed rape is to be grown on the site for at least two years.

Both firms face a maximum fine of pounds 20,000 in the magistrates' court for breaching the Environmental Protection Act 1990 - and an unlimited one if the case is referred to the Crown Court.

David Hill, a media consultant to Monsanto, confirmed late last week that the company will be pleading guilty. "It will be a very short court case," he said.

He added that, as things stood, there was little the company could do to stop a similar breach happening again. Monsanto had no direct control of the trials, which were done by third-party growers appointed by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Foods (Maff). The company says it is working closely with Maff and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) to produce "a standard set of operating procedures" to avoid future breaches.

Both firms have been in trouble before for a similar offence although no charges were brought. Just over a year ago the DETR was informed that too small an "isolation distance" had been left around another crop of GM oilseed rape near Broadway in the Cotswolds. The crop had to be destroyed.

Geoffrey Lean