Why not grow GM crops on MoD land?

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The Independent Online
If the Government is so keen to protect trials of genetically modified (GM) crops from protesters, why doesn't it plant them on Ministry of Defence land?

Because it needs to find out how the crops interact with the environment, and with other crops, the trials need to be carried out on working farms.

Also, some MoD sites contain Sites of Special Scientific Interest. The Government is meant to protect them - so if the GM crops affected them, the decision to plant there would be severely criticised.

Why don't they just put some security on the sites?

Large fields are easy targets. The examples of hoax crop circles shows that it is easy for people who want to get into fields to do so. Mounting a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week security operation around fields of up to 22 acres from now until harvest is too expensive for the farmers to contemplate. The Government is unwilling to pay for it. AgrEvo, the biotechnology company supplying the seeds, has asked police forces to increase surveillance of the fields.

Why don't they keep the locations of the sites secret?

The biotechnology companies and some parts of the Government (though not, notably, Michael Meacher, the environment minister) would like to.

AgrEvo is not required by law to list the locations of the four - now three - sites growing GM forage maize (used for animal feed) because that already has European approval for marketing. But it consented to name the sites so that the trials would be as open as possible.

What are the uses of the GM crops being grown?

Unmodified forage maize, widely grown in the west of England, is fed to dairy and beef cattle which are being kept over winter. It has no natural relatives in the UK, sois unlikely to crossbreed with other plants.

Oil seed rape is widely grown for its oil, which goes into margarine and cooking oil. A small amount is grown for industrial purposes.

The GM varieties of these crops are engineered to be resistant to Liberty, a weedkiller produced by AgrEvo.

How close are those crops to commercial growing in the UK?

The pressure group Friends of the Earth claims forage maize is only months from approval: it only needs to be added to the "National Seed List" (of varieties which can be sold commercially) and for Liberty to receive approval from the Pesticides Control Agency - a process which is not open to public scrutiny.

AgrEvo says that even if both of those approvals are given, it will still need the Government's permission to begin commercial growing.

Are these the last farm-scale trials?

Far from it. The plans are that they will continue, with various crops, over the next three years; Mr Meacher has been keen that the process should not be hurried. AgrEvo has applied for a total of 70 farm-scale trials next year, and is already planning a series of "winter-sown" GM crop trials for later this year.

One way or another, a lot of crops are going to be pulled up in the coming months.

Charles Arthur

Technology Editor