Government's GM policy in disarray

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT'S policy on genetically modified foods was left in disarray yesterday after its own research found that GM crops could pollute other plants.

A report commissioned by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food concluded it was impossible to guarantee that foods now sold as GM-free could remain completely uncontaminated. As revealed in The Independent yesterday, the research by the John Innes Centre in Norwich, Europe's leading GM research institute, states that contamination by either GM pollen or seed cannot be "entirely eliminated".

Both bees and the wind can carry pollen several miles, while seeds from modified oilseed rape could be accidentally dispersed during harvesting or transferred from machinery to non-GM fields, the report found. Crucially, its states that current "safe" planting distances, set at 200m for oilseed rape, should be increased if the organic farming industry is to maintain its "GM-free" certification.

It presents the Government with a simple but devastating implication: GM agriculture and organic food and farming cannot co-exist in Britain, and a choice will have to be made between them.

The former is one of the Government's pet projects; the latter is increasingly favoured by consumers. Environmentalists and organic farmers seized on the report as the first heavyweight proof of their claims that current voluntary guidelines for biotech giants are inadequate.

As they show that contamination can pollute any neighbouring crops, the findings also undermine recent attempts by supermarket chains and food manufacturers to declare themselves GM-free. Research by Friends of the Earth released yesterday also found that more than 90 of the UK's 1,000 organic farms are within a six-mile radius of the GM test sites set up by the Government.

Jeff Rooker, Minister of Sate for Agriculture, welcomed the "very valuable" report. He said that he wanted biotech firms and organic farmers to meet in the light of the report make sure adequate safeguards were put in place.

"There's no doubt about it, there is a case be be answered here for the future," he told BBC Radio 4's World at One programme. "We have to look at the results of this study to see what we can do with these trials ... to ensure that we get the best possible practical approach."

Mr Rooker stressed that the trials were needed to assess the impact of GMOs on the environment, but conceded that he was prepared to look again the guidelines in the light of the research.

But Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, said that the research proved that no crops grown in the UK could be described as GM-free.

"The Government has always said that they will only act on scientific evidence. Now their own research has provided irrefutable proof of the likelihood of contamination," he said.

"Tony Blair and his ministers are operating on a `pollute now, pay later' policy. Farm-scale trial plots are rather like letting a rat with bubonic plague out into the environment and then seeing what happens."

Nick Brown, Agriculture Minister, promised earlier this year that the Government was "absolutely committed" to protecting the rights of shoppers who didn't want to eat crops that had been cross-contaminated.

Ministers came under further pressure on the issue yesterday when Greenpeace unveiled a new MORI poll showing that 74 per cent of the public were worried about contamination by GM crops. Most worrying for ministers, it shows that 81 per cent of Labour voters are concerned.

Doug Parr, director of Greenpeace, said that by allowing the trials, the Government was consigning the organic farming sector to its "death- bed".

"This research indicates that all crops, both conventional and organic, can be contaminated by GM crops. It proves that GM trials could be a complete nightmare for food producers who are desperately trying to sell GM-free foods," he said.

A BBC Newsnight survey published last night showed that two-thirds of Britain's largest farmers would not play host to a GM trial. More than half were worried about contamination on their land.

The report, "Organic Farming and Gene Transfer from Genetically Modified Crops", written by John Innes scientists Catherine Moyes and Philip Dale, was published yesterday by MAFF.

It makes clear it will be impossible to guarantee that organic fruit, vegetables and cereals, now sold as GM-free, remain completely uncontaminated.

The study examines in detail the risks of contamination from GM plantings, by pollen, which is carried by wind and by insects such as bees; and by seeds, which can be transferred to other crops by farm machinery, for example.

It reviews comprehensively the last 50 years' worth of scientific literature on how far pollen can travel and states: "Pollen concentration decreases rapidly close to the source but low levels can be detected at much longer distances. This is true for wind and insect-pollinated species."

Pollen from clover has been detected more than 1,600m from its source, from plants in the cabbage family 1,500m away, and from from beets and grasses at more than 1,000m.

Bees visiting onion flowers have been found to forage for distances of more than 4,000m, although the study that gave this data drew no conclusions on pollen dispersal, the report says.

Contamination by seeds is less frequent, as seeds are produced by the crop in much smaller numbers than pollen grains, but it can still occur at long range. "The agricultural environment does provide alternative mechanisms for long-distance seed dispersal," the report says, instancing transportation by sowing, cultivation or harvesting equipment which is not thoroughly cleaned between uses.

Even longer distances can be covered when spillages occur from harvested seed; this has happened with oilseed rape, which now grows wild in many places.