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Friday, 16 August, 2002, 12:15 GMT 13:15 UK
GM trials: What went wrong?
There has been a call for an immediate ban on any further test-planting of genetically-modified crops after the discovery that some GM rapeseed planted in Britain this year had been contaminated by unauthorised seeds.

What has been found at the British GM trial sites?

Aventis CropScience has been testing an oil seed rape crop which has been genetically modified to make it resistant to a particular weedkiller.

They have found that a small percentage of the seeds they used had an extra modification which also makes them resistant to one particular antibiotic.

Around half of the trial sites are affected.

Is this a problem?

It is for Aventis, because they were not licenced to test the other seed.

But Aventis say they have done the right thing by telling the government about the problem and by improving their quality control to make sure it will not happen again.

They say the extra seeds are safe in any case and have been tested before in trials in the UK and abroad.

Anti-GM campaigners say the slip-up is evidence of shoddy quality control.

They also say they are worried that antibiotic resistance could cross from the seeds to bacteria.

This would be a cause for concern because bacteria live inside human beings and antibiotics are the major first line of defence in treating infection.

Aventis say their modification could not cross to bacteria and even if it did, the antibiotic in question is not used in human medicine.

How did the rogue seeds come to light?

A different scientific team using Aventis seeds in a small-scale study in Scotland realised the error and told Aventis.

Who supervises GM trials in Britain?

Strict regulations are imposed by the government on what can be grown and where, but the company carrying out the trials is expected to carry out the monitoring itself.

This monitoring is a requirement of the trial licence issued by Defra, the government department responsible for GM trials.

Defra has its own GM inspectorate, but a spokeswoman for Defra told BBC News Online that it would only carry out random testing at trial sites if it became suspicious that something was wrong.

What is the point of putting antibiotic resistance into seeds?

It is an old way of distinguishing the GM seeds from other seeds. Some newer GM varieties do not use the antibiotic resistance marker.

Why aren't GM trials done indoors?

They have been but it is not possible to work out the effect the crops have on animals and plants in the environment without testing them outside.

Why do biotech companies want to modify crops?

They say that making crops resistant to weedkillers means that the weedkiller can be used in a more targeted way.

Instead of spraying fields before planting as a precaution, they can be sprayed only where the weeds appear.

What will happen to Aventis?

The company says it has done the right thing by telling the government about the mistake and tightening its procedures.

The government will now investigate the contamination and will decide whether or not to take action.

See also:

15 Aug 02 | Scotland
15 Aug 02 | England
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