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Wednesday, July 28, 1999 Published at 23:11 GMT 00:11 UK


Peers plead for GM compromise

Organic farmers need help, the Lords say: But they should then stand on their own feet

By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

A House of Lords committee has urged farmers to bury their differences over genetically modified (GM) crops.

In a report on the prospects for organic farming, the all-party European Communities committee appeals for a truce.

"The government must help the organic movement and conventional farmers who intend to use GM crops to reach some kind ofmodus vivendi (way to live together), respecting as far as possible the wishes of both sides.

"It will be vital to find an acceptable compromise over minimum set distances between organic and GM crops, similar to the rules for preserving seed purity."

These specify the distances required between crops grown for seed production and all others, where cross-pollination could occur.

A report by the same committee last January said the potential benefits from GM crops far outweighed the risks.

It attracted criticism from some scientists and conservation groups.

Environmental and welfare gains

In their latest report the Lords come out in favour of organic farming, which they say "brings clear benefits for the natural environment and for animal welfare".

The chairman of the sub-committee which produced the report, Lord Reay, said: "Organic farming methods improve biodiversity - the evidence is overwhelming".

"They also make for better animal health and welfare, without the routine use of antibiotics."

The report says soil structure, water quality and some aspects of food quality also benefit.

It says government support for farmers converting to organic production is justified.

[ image: Organic farming 'improves biodiversity']
Organic farming 'improves biodiversity'
But organic farmers should not be paid continuing subsidies simply because they are organic.

"It is possible to achieve similar environmental benefits without being organic."

The report criticises some substances currently permitted on organic farms, such as copper- and sulphur-based fungicides.

The committee says consumers "would not expect such substances to be used in the production and processing of organic food", and wants more research into substitutes.

It also gives a warning about enforcing high standards on organic food imported to the UK.

Given the impossibility at present of testing produce to prove its authenticity, the committee says: "We do not think it is sufficient to rely on a paper-based system for organic imports".

Instead, it recommends on-the-spot checks by inspectors working for the European Union, and the development ultimately of globally-recognised standards.

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