Stop GM Foods: Modified crops `out of control'

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THE MINISTRY of Agriculture has privately admitted that it has no idea how many genetically modified (GM) crops are being used in animal feed, despite warnings from its own advisers that this could lead to the creation of "superbugs" resistant to antibiotics.

A confidential briefing note from civil servants to Food Safety Minister, Jeff Rooker, seen by the Independent on Sunday, says: "It is not possible to know the extent to which GM material is being used in animal feed in the UK."

On top of this, the Government also intends to give its approval for US company Monsanto to sell GM cotton to animal food producers throughout Europe, in a crucial Brussels vote this week, despite further warnings from advisers.

A letter written last week by Dr Paul Burrows, head of biotechnology controls at the Department of the Environment, says: "[The UK] will be content with these products [GM Cotton] in terms of safety to the UK environment but will still have reservations about their use in animal feed due to the antibiotic resistance marker genes." Some GM crops which could be in the feed have been manipulated by scientists to be resistant to antibiotics. Scientists and environmental campaigners fear that the antibiotic resistance could be passed to animals, then the humans who eat them. Civil servants have warned it could create bacteria immune to antibiotics.

It was fears of just such a superbug which led Brussels, with UK government backing, to recently ban five antibiotics used to treat animals.

"The risk is that the antibiotic resistance can transfer into bacteria in the animal's gut and therefore greatly increase the development of antibiotic resistance," said Pete Riley, of Friends of the Earth. "This could cause big problems for humans and veterinary medicine."

The revelations will shock farmers who have been seeking reassurances from ministers about GM crops in animal food, following the BSE crisis. At present, there is no legal requirement for animal feed which contains genetically altered material to be labelled, so there is no way of knowing how much of it is being fed to cows, pigs and chickens. Following the outcry from farmers over BSE, the Ministry of Agriculture proposed setting up an expert committee on animal foodstuffs.

"This is the first time something like this has been proposed," said Dr Ricarda Steinbrecher, a geneticist researching GM foods. "The Government is making decisions in an almost improvisational manner."