Secret deal will ban GM crops until 2002

GENETICALLY MODIFIED crops are to be banned for three years under a landmark deal being secretly negotiated between the Government and biotechnology companies. After weeks of confidential talks, ministers are poised to announce a breakthrough. Seed companies will agree to a voluntary freeze on growing GM crops in Britain until at least the year 2002.

The deal, expected to be announced within the next three weeks, will mark a victory for campaigners, including the Independent on Sunday, who have called on the Government to delay planting GM crops in Britain until there have been more tests on environmental effects. The voluntary freeze will allow scientists to examine the effect of growing GM crops on other plants and animals.

Government sources say that the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who believes in the benefits of GM crops and has backed them publicly, is in favour of a freeze if it is agreed voluntarily by the agro-chemical companies. "This is a matter for the industry," said an aide to the Prime Minister.

Agriculture and environment ministers have also backed the negotiations between senior civil servants and companies such as Novartis, Zeneca and Monsanto. Ministers have been kept closely informed of progress in the talks, which began six weeks ago.

The Government, worried by the backlash against GM food demonstrated in an NOP opinion poll in the Independent on Sunday showing widespread consumer concern, is keen to be seen to be taking action on the issue but believes that the biotechnology industry must take the decision itself. It has ruled out forcing companies to stop commercial planting of GM crops for fear of a further trade row with the US, which has considerable commercial interests in the new technology.

Last year, ministers negotiated a one-year moratorium on planting GM crops commercially in the UK, but this will run out in 2000. Government sources close to the negotiations said that biotechnology companies such as Novartis, which has backed consumer calls for clearer labelling of GM food sold in UK shops, have been "helpful".

But Monsanto, the American agro-chemical giant most closely associated with genetic engineering, is said by government sources to be "dragging its feet".

The industry body representing biotechnology companies and plant breeders believes that "any delay on the commercial production of GM crops in the UK would be unscientific and unjustified". A possible shortage of GM seed may be one of the reasons the agro-chemical companies will agree to the extended moratorium.

English Nature, the Government's official adviser on wildlife, has called for a freeze on the commercial growing of GM crops for three years until more data is available.