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Monday, June 7, 1999 Published at 13:48 GMT 14:48 UK


Farmer destroys GM crop trial

Weedkiller left the rape brown and dead

BBC Environment Correspondent Margaret Gilmore reports.
The UK's first farm-scale trial of genetically-modified (GM) crops has been destroyed by the farmer growing them, on the orders of his farm's trustees.

Reacting to the news, Jeff Rooker, the UK Government's Food Safety minister, told the BBC: "There are people who are hellbent on making sure the government is not able to conduct the trials to get this [environmental safety] information.

Jeff Rooker: "We have to have the science"
"We can't operate food and safety policy on a hunch - we have to have the science and that's why we need the trials."

Advocate of GM technology

The farmer, Captain Fred Barker, is a strong advocate of GM technology.

[ image: Captain Barker: reluctant destroyer]
Captain Barker: reluctant destroyer
But he said he was put under intense pressure by the trustees of his family farm at Hannington, in Wiltshire. Capt Barker set up the trust to look after his land in the names of his children.

On Saturday he used weedkiller to destroy a 26-acre crop of GM rapeseed which was planted at Easter. He said the destruction would leave him out of pocket.

The trustees are opposed to the government-run trials and were unhappy that other crops on the farm were to lose their organic status because of the trial.

Captain Freddie Barker: "Great regret"
Capt Barker said: "It is with great regret that I have had to abort my GM trial. I believe very strongly in the technology.

"However, the trustees of my family settlement have very different views and have all along not been in favour. Recent events have made them come out against this GM trial."

Trial aims unharmed

The biotechnology company which developed the seeds on trial, AgrEvo, said they were "deeply disappointed".

[ image: Des D'Souza: Trial aims not in jepoardy]
Des D'Souza: Trial aims not in jepoardy
But their spokesman, Desmond D'Souza, told the BBC he did not think the aims of the trials was in jeopardy.

"The objective of this year's trials was to get some core data. We believe the government can be reassured that the remaining six trials will give them that core data."

He added that some uncertainties have been voiced over the environmental impact of GM crops but said: "The government is right to say 'lets do this work to clarify certain areas'. We fully support the objectives of these trials."

Bitter blow to government

However, green campaigner, Professor John Whitelegg, told the BBC: "It's entirely in line with the general rejection of GM food and crops and the whole approach to forcing this technology on the population at large.

"The vast majority of organisations and individuals don't want it. I think we'll see more of [this action] in the future."

Food under the microscope
Friends of the Earth (FoE) said the decision to terminate the trial would be a bitter blow to the government. Pete Riley, FoE's food campaigner said: "Whilst FoE is not opposed in principle to scientific trials of GM crops we believe that the current farm-scale trials pose an unacceptable risk to the environment and will not provide the information neccesary to prove their safety or otherwise."

[ image: Over 26 acres of rape were destroyed]
Over 26 acres of rape were destroyed
He repeated FoE's call for a five-year moratorium on the growing of GM crops. The government has refused this, saying science should judge how long it takes for the technology to prove its safety, not some arbitrary time period.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, said where trials were needed to assess environmental impact, they were being carried out. "You have to have objective scientific information and that's what these trials are about."

Open mind

At the weekend, commentators suggested that comments by the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, represented a softening of the government's line on GM crops.

Mr Blair told the BBC: "We're in the position, as the government, where it is almost as if people say you're the greatest advocates of GM food. I'm not the advocate of anything other than keeping an open mind."

However, the Environment Minister, Michael Meacher also speaking over the weekend, appeared to take a stronger line. He said that there were "very great uncertainties" about GM technology.

On Monday, John Prescott dismissed any difference: "They are both saying the same thing - we are aware of the concerns of the electorate."

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