Ministers admit to `illegal' GM trials

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GOVERNMENT TRIALS of genetically modified crops were plunged into chaos yesterday when the Environment Minister Michael Meacher had to admit the latest series of plantings were illegal.

Government lawyers, in a highly embarrassing climbdown, conceded the claim by the Friends of the Earth, in a judicial review case in the High Court, that this autumn's large-scale trials programme on four farms had been wrongly licensed.

Environment Department officials had allowed the company involved, AgrEvo, to obtain a variation of an old licence when they should have insisted it seek a new one, which would have been more expensive and time-consuming for the company.

Although the case is based on a technicality, it is a big embarrassment for the Government, as it gives an impression of incompetence in the management of a hot political issue, and of special treatment for the agribusiness companies promoting GM technology. "It is a bad day for us," a government source admitted.

Mr Meacher, insisting that it was a "narrow, technical matter" with no health, safety or environmental issues involved, said that the Government still wished the environmental trials of winter oilseed rape to continue on the three sites already planted.

He accepted, however, that if Friends of the Earth returned to court and won an order for the trial sites to be destroyed, they would have to be dug up.

Friends of the Earth said it would seek such an order, accusing the Government of hypocrisy. "How can they admit they have broken the law over these trials and then do nothing about stopping them?" said the group's campaigns director, Liana Stupples.

"How can the Government expect people to trust them if this is their attitude? We are calling for these crops to be dug up immediately. The trials are completely discredited."

Mr Meacher said he was concerned at the possibility that green activists might in the meantime attack the three remaining sites, the locations of which, in Lincolnshire and Hertfordshire, are well known. Crops on a similar site in Norfolk were destroyed by members of Greenpeace last month.

"We are concerned about their protection and the police are obviously concerned that they should not be damaged or destroyed or violated in any way," he said.

But he claimed that the majority of members of the public had reacted adversely to Greenpeace's attack and he hoped that this would "give others due cause to think very carefully." He added: "I am sure the courts will act vigorously with those who behave in this way."

However, Mr Meacher said he still believed that in the cause of open government the location of the sites should continue to be published.

Jack Cunningham, overseer of the Government's GM policy, hinted last week that if attacks continued, the sites might be kept secret.

The dispute concerns the four-year series of farm-scale trials, begun under government supervision this year, to test the effects of growing GM crops on the local environment, the first such trials in the world.

The GM plants involved, oilseed rape and maize, are genetically engineered to be tolerant of a new generation of powerful weedkillers and there are fears that these may have a devastating effect on wild flowers, insects and birds.

The plantings this year are a dry run to establish the methodology for the full series of 75 trials to run from 2000 until the end of 2002. Six plantings of spring-sown rape and maize are now coming to an end, and are being followed by four sites of autumn-sown rape.

It is these four which are the subject of Friends of the Earth's successful High Court challenge. They were authorised by a variation of the licence for the spring sowings, but the Government now accepts that under EU law and the Environment Protection Act it should have been the subject of an entirely new licence application. Mr Meacher said that the Government would no longer be contesting the judicial review proceedings. "We are accepting that we acted illegally," he said.

"We acted in good faith, but we made a mistake and as soon as that became clear, we have sought to put it right." The testing programme would continue. "It is absolutely vital that we have these trials."