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Sunday, 9 September, 2001, 23:07 GMT 00:07 UK
GM crop trials 'flawed'
Grainfield at sunrise Monsanto
A bright new dawn with GM crops? The field trials are meant to explore the arguments
By BBC News Online's environment correspondent Alex Kirby

The UK's field trials of genetically modified (GM) crops are seriously deficient, the government's advisers say.

They say the trials, known as farm-scale evaluations (FSEs), are "not an adequate basis" for deciding whether the crops should be grown commercially.

The advisers believe the trials should continue, provided they meet certain conditions.

But they say the way the trials were introduced encouraged the belief that they were shrouded in secrecy.

The criticism comes from the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission (AEBC), which advises the government on biotechnology issues affecting agriculture and the environment.

It has published a report, Crops on Trial, whose recommendations, it says, "aim to foster openness and transparency".

Greater separation

The AEBC says the trials will provide valuable ecological data, but that this is not enough.

Ministers will need to take other information into account, it says, and consult people more widely than the government has done so far.

The report says the FSEs should continue, on certain conditions:

  • the government should confirm there will be no GM crops grown commercially until the trials are complete and the results have been evaluated alongside other factors and other evidence;
  • the separation distances between GM trials and conventional crops should be large enough to suit everyone involved, including organic farmers;
  • people should be clearly told the objectives and the limitations of the trials;
  • there must be effective local public consultation around the trial sites.
The report says that ministers must consider not only the FSE results, but a range of other information, before taking any decision on allowing GM crops to be grown commercially.

Cropfields in countryside Monsanto
GM and conventional fields are close
This includes other scientific data, ethical concerns, strategic and economic issues raised by the forthcoming Policy Commission on Food and Farming, and concerns voiced by members of the public.

And the AEBC also recommends "an independent baseline review of all the information that will need to be considered in addition to the results from the FSEs".

Its comments on the way the trials were introduced are scathing.

The report says: "The absence of consultation, the very short notification, and the particularly unfortunate location of some of the chosen sites have made it seem that the trials have been conceived and designed in a secretive way, with key players not fully engaged."

The AEBC chairman is Malcolm Grant, professor of land economy at the University of Cambridge.

No bulldozing

He said: "GM crops are part of the greater debate about what kind of agricultural production people want in the UK, and how it can be achieved.

"We believe this report sets out some practical steps the government should take."

GM and non-GM crops adjoining Monsanto
GM companies say the advantages are clear
Professor Grant told BBC News Online: "Our concern is really that there may be a simplistic assumption that the FSEs are the last piece in the jigsaw.

"We want the government to start gearing up now to obtain all the other data and addressing the concerns that we think it should be considering too.

"When we speak of a baseline review, we want data included from other forms of agriculture. Some AEBC members think conventional agriculture may be more harmful to wildlife than GM crops.

Broad church

"People do feel GM is something that's being imposed on them. But we think the government realises there's no way this can be bulldozed through."

The AEBC represents a wide range of views, including among its members, academics, farmers, scientists and environmental campaigners.

Greenpeace said the report "identifies gaps in scientific research as well as political, ethical and commercial issues which need to be resolved before the commercial growing of GM crops in Britain should begin".

Dr Doug Parr, its chief scientific adviser, said: "If the government wants to show that it isn't in the pocket of the biotech giants, it needs to hold this wide debate and stop the farm-scale trials programme."

Images courtesy of Monsanto Co.

Professor Malcom Grant
"We're keen that the trial should be completed"
See also:

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GM tomatoes 'offer health boost'
24 Jul 01 | UK
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22 May 01 | Sci/Tech
GM crop trial abandoned
01 Mar 01 | UK
GM trials spark fresh row
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