Safety check for crop with 'foreign' genes: Approval sought for 'altered' oilseed rape

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The Independent Online
GOVERNMENT advisers meet today to decide whether a genetically engineered crop plant is safe enough to go on sale.

If the committee clears the new type of oilseed rape it will be the first such artificially altered crop to be approved for the British market, changing the scale of genetic crop development from small experimental plots to mass production.

This has alarmed environmental campaigners, who argue that little is known about the effect 'foreign' genes in crops will have when the engineered plants that carry them are planted en masse. The rape plants could cross with wild plants, transferring their genes and risking the spread of herbicide resistance to weeds.

Julie Hill, director of the Green Alliance and member of the Advisory Committee on Release to the Environment (Acre), which will consider the proposal, said: 'Greenpeace is highlighting concerns that Acre has known for a long time it would have to deal with, once such engineered plants moved from research to commercialisation, because at this point the inserted genes will almost certainly be spread in the environment.'

The new plants, created by Plant Genetic Systems, (PGS) a Belgian biotechnology company, have extra genes taken from tobacco and four bacteria. The male plants of the line are engineered to be sterile, preventing further cross-breeding.

One of the foreign genes makes the plants resistant to a herbicide called Basta. The plants also carry a gene that renders them resistant to an antibiotic.

Oilseed rape is the bright yellow crop used in margarine, vegetable oil, detergents and animal feed.

Greenpeace objects to the use of resistant crops which it claims tie farmers into using harmful chemicals. But Dr Anne-Marie Bouckaert, director of the technology planning and protection division at PGS, has said that although one herbicide would be used more often, it would replace others which are more harmful to the environment.

Greenpeace is also unhappy because conferring Basta resistance on crops involves adding only a single gene. The anxiety is that this increases the likelihood of the gene 'escaping' and passing into other species via pollen.

Dr Bouckaert has said cross-pollination between wild species and cultured crops occurs in very few cases. The fact that the Basta transformation involved only one gene would make it easier to track the gene if it jumped into other species.

The PGS oilseed rape has already raised objections from those opposed to patents on life. In 1990, the European Patent Office granted PGS a patent on its Basta-resistant oilseed rape - the first it had granted on a herbicide-resistant crop.

Opponents also have economic objections. They point out that the Basta herbicide is manufactured by Hoechst, sold in the UK as Challenge. PGS has granted Hoechst exclusive rights to exploit its resistant crops, and environmentalists argue that this type of 'monopoly' control over genetic resources should not be trusted to any individual, and certainly not to a multinational corporation.

But PGS says Hoechst is not a seed company, so is not yet in a position to set up a full monopoly - selling both herbicide-resistant seed and the herbicide.