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Thursday, February 18, 1999 Published at 03:30 GMT


'U-turn' on GM food

GM foods: test period may be extended

The ban on the commercial growing of genetically modified (GM) foods may be extended by the government until more about their effects on health and the environment are known.

Robin Oakley, Political Editor: "Today's case won't help ministers calm fears about GM crops"
Environment Minister Michael Meacher told BBC One's Nine O'Clock News that if more than the already agreed one-year ban was needed for research, the government would push for it.

"l believe in the current climate the industry will agree it," he said. "If they do not, we will use the legislative instruments that are necessary to achieve it."

A spokesman for the Department of the Environment later said the government's policy was unchanged.

Only after farm-scale testing would it decide how to proceed.

Scientific evidence based on that research would determine whether the government sought an extension of the testing period, or whether commercial growing was possible.

'U-turn has begun'

Friends of the Earth director Charles Secrett drew encouragement from Mr Meacher's remarks, but said: "The U-turn has started, but the government has further to go. A voluntary agreement is not enough.

"We are calling for a clear freeze on commercial growing of GM crops until scientific research has been completed, published and debated."

Mr Meacher's statement comes as two companies admitted failing to ensure that GM rapeseed would not escape into the British countryside. They were fined a total of £31,000 for breaching government regulations.

[ image: Monsanto said before the trial it regretted the breach of consent]
Monsanto said before the trial it regretted the breach of consent
In the first case of its kind in this country, the American chemical giant, Monsanto, and the Worcestershire-based company, Perryfields, pleaded guilty before magistrates at Caistor in Lincolnshire.

The prosecution was brought by the Health and Safety Executive, after a routine inspection of an experimental field of oil-seed rape last summer.

Monsanto failed to comply with the law covering the release of GM crops.

Investigators claim they found a barrier, meant to stop the transfer of herbicide-tolerant GM pollen to nearby unmodified crops, had been partially removed before flowering.

This, it is claimed, could lead to the cross-pollenation of the two.

Fine 'not enough'

Friends of the Earth senior food campaigner Pete Riley described the fine as "pathetic" and said it should have been much heavier.

Monsanto said before the trial it regretted the breach of consent, and had taken "immediate steps to limit any potential environment impact" of the broken barrier.

All GM plants were destroyed along with any plants within a 50-metre radius, following the HSE inspection.

It said the barrier had been mown down by a contractor by accident.

'Bad news for countryside'

The government's Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Robert May, openly expressed worries about the effects of GM crops on Monday.

"GM technologies are going to intensify an existing trend, that no-one eats the food we grow but us - that's the aim, and that's bad news for the birds and the rest of the countryside," he told the BBC.

"So I worry about the consequences for biological diversity. Our regulatory structure needs to encompass all kinds of worries, and recognise the differences among them."

Leaked report

The environmental group Friends of the Earth has also made public a leaked government report expressing fears about the risks posed by GM foods. The report is now likely to be published on Thursday, it has emerged.

It was drawn up by the Department of the Environment last June but had not been made open knowledge until it was leaked to Friends of the Earth.

The environment pressure group claimed Cabinet Office Minister Jack Cunningham had sought to suppress the report's contents.

But the government insisted it had always planned to publish it and suggested the normal administrative process was to blame for the delays.

Mr Meacher said earlier: "It is wrong to say we're just sitting on a report. We're not, we're getting it out as fast as we can."

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