ecoglobe [yinyang] news (9 November 1999)

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New worries on GM foods

Eastern Daily Press, November 6th, front page

Genetically modified crops being tested in controversial farm-scale trials could enter the human food chain as animal fodder, it emerged last night.

As a Norfolk-based biotechnology company last night vowed to win back public confidence, the Government faced fresh controversy over the safety of GM food.

The Government announced yesterday that commercial growing of GM crops would be banned for another three years until 2002 - a move that is set to cost the biotechnology industry millions of pounds.

Norfolk-based AgrEvo, which, along with Monsanto, leads the world in biotechnology, had said it would use the three years to fight back and help calm public fears over GM crops.

But a new controversy arose when Environment Minister Michael Meacher was forced to concede that the crops could be used as animal fodder ahead of 2002 and enter the food chain,, either as meat or in animal products such as milk.

Mr Meacher insisted that any such products would be properly labelled to make clear that they came from animals which had been fed on GM crops.

"We have a secure agreement with the industry that the produce will be identity-reserved through the chain," he said.

"So there is no question that we have anything other than a full public undertaking that there will be no labelling for the consumer.

"No one need eat any of this produce if they do not wish to."

Under the new agreement, reached between the Government and biotechnology group Scimac (Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops) no GM crops can be grown for commercial gain until the end of 2002 at the earliest.

Clive Rainbird, communications manager for AgrEvo, based at East Winch, near King's Lynn admitted that the ban on grow GM crops was a financial blow.

'When we first embarked on t we were anticipating there wo be commercial planting bef, 2000," he said.

"We have spent millions pounds on investing in technology but wo have to accept we have lost public confidence.

"I don't think anyone ever underestimated the ability of opponents to generate public concern. What did catch us out was the ferocity of the campaign.

"We have to accept that we have a lot to do. We've got three years to gain public confidence. We're confident we can do that."

Farm-scale trials will play a vital role in evaluating if GM crops are harmful to the environment or safe for human consumption.

Between 20 and 25 trial programmes designed to assess the environmental impact of crops will be permitted for each crop [at least 4 different crops] every year.

But opponents fear the 25-acre [each] farm-scale tests will allow pollution from GM plants to escape and threaten the future of naturally occurring plants.

A Greenpeace spokesman said yesterday's announcement had failed to address the concerns expressed over the trials.

The spokesman said: "The so-called 'trials' will actually mean more GM crops in the ground than ever before, more risk of GM contamination and the possibility of these trials reaching the food chain via animal feed.

"The Government and biotech companies have been forced to resort to this fake moratorium because of overwhelming rejection of Gl\l food by the public and the food industry.

"It's a way of the Government trying to keep GM crops alive while it tries to change public opinion."

But Mr Meacher maintained tha~ commercial cultivation of GM cropc would not be allowed until thr Government was satisfied that there would be no unacceptable impact on the environment.

"The Government has said all along that there will be no general cultivation of GM crops until we are satisfied there will be no unacceptable effects on the environment," he said.

"This agreement is in line with our primary role which is to protect human health and the environment."

Mr Meacher promised that the farm scale tests "will help inform public debate on GM crops by moving forward on the basis of sound science".


GM storm will not go away

For once, the Government may well be rather pleased to see reports stating it has performed a U-turn. It knows that it has failed badly in the public relations battle over genetically-modified crops, and would like it to be understood that it has been listening to the concerns of environmentalists and acting accordingly.

Does the announcement that the commercial growing of GM crops will remain banned until 2002 really amount, however, to a major shift in policy? We think not. But it is also misleading for the Soil Association and other anti-GM campaigning groups to claim that the decision amounts to nothing new.

The truth seems to lie somewhere in between. An existing restraint has been extended. But if ministers think this will be enough for the storm to blow over - and that could be the main calculation - they are surely mistaken.

It is not only the prospect of the commercial growing of GM crops that has been worrying people. There are also deep-rooted fears about farm-scale tests featuring the crops, and these experiments will be continuing.

The argument that the tests are necessary to show what, if any, dangers arise from the growing of GM crops, has an essential logic, but is nonetheless seriously flawed.

The fear is that in showing there was cause for concern, the tests could let something loose that would be capable of widespread environmental damage.

How can the Government be so confident that pollen will not spread from GM test sites and damage or alter naturally occurring plants? Its idea of the minimum segregation distances necessary to guarantee that that cannot happen flies in the face of common sense.

Let there be trials, but ministers must insist they take place in tightly isolated conditions. There must also be complete honesty, and not the sleight-of-hand that continued yesterday.

[This article was received through Sun Nov 7 07:19:48 1999]
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