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Wednesday, May 12, 1999 Published at 14:58 GMT 15:58 UK


GM pollen warning to organic farmers

Bees can carry pollen across the barrier zones set up around GM crops

By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

A UK Government-commissioned scientific report on genetically-modified (GM) crops is thought to say that GM pollen can spread over very long distances.

The Ministry of Agriculture (Maff) confirms that it requested the report, from the John Innes Centre in Norwich.

It says the report exists in draft form, but will not comment on it until ministers have seen it. Officials from Maff and the Department of the Environment (DETR) are to meet the Soil Association and other organic farming representatives on 14 May.

The meeting, which was arranged some time ago, will discuss several items, including the report.

It is believed to say that some contamination of organic crops by GM plants is inevitable. It is understood to accept the findings of a report two months ago from the National Pollen Research Unit.

That said that GM pollen could be carried a long way by insects and on the wind. With maize pollen, "in normal weather conditions, pollination could occur at sites remote from the source (e.g. 180 kilometres)".

Setting an acceptable level

The rules governing official GM crop trials insist on just a 200-metre barrier between trial and conventional plants.

The report from the John Innes Centre is thought to say that 1% of organic plants in any field could become GM hybrids through cross-pollination. It argues that "acceptable" levels of contamination of organic crops must be agreed.

[ image: Organic crops cannot be guaranteed]
Organic crops cannot be guaranteed
The director of the Soil Association, which sets standards for organic farmers, is Patrick Holden. He said: "We are implacably opposed to any suggestion of a minimum level of contamination.

"When consumers say they want non-GM food, they don't mean food contaminated up to a threshold of 1%, 2% or 5%. They mean GM-free."

Some scientists, while they agree that pollen can be carried far and wide, say that the possibility of cross-pollination is very small with many crops. The pollen grains lose their potency relatively quickly, and they have to compete with locally-produced pollen when they land on plants.

Food under the microscope
Surrounding GM crops with plants of other species reduces the risk, because cross-pollination between species is harder than within them. But the scientists agree that there is no zero risk of GM pollen spreading, and no barrier zone capable of preventing it.

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The National Pollen Research Unit

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