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Wednesday, 16 May, 2001, 16:29 GMT 17:29 UK
GM trials row intensifies
GM plants in field Alex Kirby
GM crops, like these in Hertfordshire, are being tested across the UK
By BBC News Online's environment correspondent Alex Kirby

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) says it may resign from a committee supervising the UK trials of genetically modified (GM) crops.


If the Wolston trial goes ahead it will look like an attempt to pick a fight with the organic movement

Dr Mark Avery, RSPB
The RSPB opposes plans to plant a GM maize crop near a renowned organic farming research centre.

Conservationists fear that pollen from the maize could contaminate plants at the centre. The RSPB says it will pull out of the committee if the trial goes ahead.

The herbicide-tolerant maize is due to be planted on a farm at Wolston in Warwickshire, in the English Midlands. The farm is nearly three kilometres (two miles) from Ryton Organic Gardens.

Cross-pollination

The gardens are run by the Henry Doubleday Research Association and conduct trials on organic crops for the European Union and the UK Government. They also house an important organic seed bank.

Michael Meacher BBC
Michael Meacher: Cannot intervene
The Environment Minister, Michael Meacher, has said the GM trial should be moved to another site for fear the maize cross-pollinated with seeds at the centre, which would then lose its licence to grow organic crops.

The RSPB, Europe's largest conservation charity, is a member of the independent scientific steering committee (SSC) appointed to design the scientific study of the farm trials of GM crops in various parts of the UK.

The trials are to see whether GM crops are neutral, negative or positive for wildlife.

The sites for them are chosen by an agricultural industry body, Scimac (the Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops).

'PR disaster'

The RSPB has accused Scimac of "bungling the handling" of the trials, and says it will leave the SSC unless Scimac withdraws the Wolston site from the trials.

Dr Mark Avery, the RSPB's conservation director, told BBC News Online: "These trials need to be handled sensitively.

"If the Wolston trial goes ahead it will look like an attempt to pick a fight with the organic movement.

"Creating a public relations disaster, which Scimac seems intent on doing, will simply make it much more difficult for the scientific results to be taken on board by the public.

"We told Scimac we would resign unless Wolston was taken off the list, and they appeared pretty unmoved."

'Zero risk'

A response by Scimac to the RSPB says: "In the absence of any scientific raionale for this decision, it is difficult for Scimac to understand the RSPB's position in issuing this demand."

The statement reiterates Scimac's understanding that "the risk of cross-pollination over distances as large as three km is likely to be zero", and that therefore the organic centre faces no threat.


There's nothing we can do about it

The Environment Department
Mr Meacher said last week he might have to test the law to see if he could intervene to stop the Wolston trial. He wrote to the SSC chairman, Professor Chris Pollock, on 10 May, asking whether the committee thought the Wolston farm was essential to the trials.

Professor Pollock, in a letter released by Mr Meacher's department, says that "it is not within the SSC's remit to consider withdrawing individual sites" from the trials.

The Environment Department told BBC News Online: "It's up to Scimac. They're legally entitled to plant where they choose, and there's nothing we can do about it."

Privately, environmental groups say they believe Scimac would be happy to withdraw Wolston from the trials if the government said it should. But with the general election campaign in full swing, they think ministers are unwilling to intervene.

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See also:

09 May 01 | Wales
GM crop trials abandoned
07 May 01 | Sci/Tech
Minister calls for GM site to move
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