March 9, 2004 -- CropChoice
news: Alex Kirby, BBC News: After five years of consultations
and tests, UK ministers announced the fateful decision to allow
GM crops to be grown commercially in Britain.
The agreement will allow the commercial growing of one variety
of GM maize in England.
The announcement has triggered vehement protest from anti-GM campaigners,
and relief from the biotechnology industry.
But legal challenges and unanswered scientific questions mean crops
are unlikely to be planted before 2005.
Agreement by all
The logical next step is that the variety concerned, Chardon LL,
will be placed on the UK Seed List (the national list of varieties).
Chardon LL is a type of fodder maize and it appeared to outperform
conventional maize in the evaluations by allowing more wildlife
to survive, although the result is contested.
But before any variety can be placed on the list, the devolved
authorities in Scotland and Wales must agree with the UK government
in Westminster that this should happen.
Neither is yet certain to give their agreement: the Welsh Assembly
voted unanimously in 2000 to keep Wales GM-free.
The Soil Association, which has fought GM crops from the beginning,
said it was fearful that if something went wrong, perhaps in 10
to 15 years, it would be "impossible to reverse".
Former environment minister Michael Meacher said the crops were
"the wrong decision" because the science did not support
it, the public was against it and it was driven by commercial interests
rather than public interest for caution.
"There has been very little environmental testing, nothing
about soil residue, nothing about gene flow from cross-pollination,
nothing about the development of super weeds...and above all, there
has been virtually no health testing of the impact of eating GM
food on human beings," he told BBC Radio 4's Today program.
Bob Fiddaman, spokesman for Scimac, a grouping of industry organizations
that support GM crops, said the technology did not carry risk.
"Never has a form of technology been so tested and checked
by scientists before it has been allowed to be fully developed,"
he told Today.
"There is nothing wrong per se with genetic technology because
you're only moving genes within species."
As well as seeking agreement from Scotland and Wales, the government
will also need to seek the approval of the Pesticides Safety Directorate
for the chemical - glufosinate ammonium, marketed as Liberty - to
be sprayed on the GM maize.
It may well say commercial crops must be grown in the same way
as the trial GM maize used in the evaluations.
Two key contentious areas are co-existence (whether GM crops can
be planted close to conventional or organic ones without contaminating
them) and liability - who pays if something goes wrong.
Ministers want the industry to accept responsibility, but the biotechnology
companies are strongly opposed to the idea.
The probable result will be a government consultation stretching
out over the spring and summer.
One possibility would see the announcement by the government of
voluntary GM-free zones, though the technology's opponents say they
would be unacceptable because they would be unenforceable.
If Scotland and Wales do agree to support a decision to let the
maize be grown, that will not necessarily be the end of the government's
It will have to advertise its intention to place Chardon LL on
the seed list, and at this point it will be open to objectors to
appeal against the decision. That could mean a hearing before a
tribunal which could last for several months.
Pete Riley, of Friends of the Earth, told BBC News Online: "We
would certainly appeal. This is a spring-sown crop, and the earliest
possible date the maize could be planted is in early 2005."
None of this addresses the serious concerns many people feel about
the farm-sized tests themselves.
Three days ago the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee
said approving GM commercialization on the basis of the evaluations
would be "irresponsible".