October 12, 2003 -- CropChoice
news -- The Independent (UK): Vital tests, which the Government
planned to use to justify the planting of genetically modified maize
in Britain, have been invalidated, The Independent on Sunday can
Michael Meacher - who as environment minister set up the trials,
the results of which are due to be published on Thursday - said
yesterday that the three-year tests will have to be done all over
again, and that until then the Government "could not responsibly
license GM crops".
The tests have been rendered invalid by a new European Union ban
on a toxic weed killer called atrazine, which is used on maize but
is suspected of causing cancer and "gender-bender" effects.
The use of the chemical - which was employed in the tests - is central
to the Government's case that growing modified maize is relatively
benign to the environment.
The ban - which could not have come at a more embarrassing moment
for Tony Blair and his ministers - appears to knock away the last
prop of their strategy to introduce GM crops to Britain, crowning
a summer of setbacks. In July two reports by the Prime Minister's
own officials and advisers, which had been expected enthusiastically
to endorse the technology, instead urged caution. And last month
a public consultation recorded majorities of nine to one against
GM foods and crops.
The EU's move is crucial because the trials specifically concentrated
on the effects of using different herbicides on GM and conventional
crops. In a maneuver which environmentalists suspect was designed
to make the tests as easy for the new technology as possible, they
did not focus on the main threat: that genes from the modified plants
would escape, creating superweeds and contaminating ordinary crops
However, leaks of the trial results suggest, as first reported
by The Independent in the summer, that the herbicides used on two
of the three planned GM crops - sugar beet and oilseed rape - damage
wildlife and nearby plants more than those used on conventional
ones. Growing of GM maize, by contrast, appears to have been found
to be less damaging than normal farming of the cereal. Ministers
have therefore been preparing to give it the green light, while
banning GM oilseed rape, and postponing the introduction of GM sugar
But the GM maize only appeared to perform well because the herbicide
used on the conventional crop was the particularly hazardous atrazine.
Last week it was banned by the EU under its Plant Protection Products
The Department of Environment admitted late last week that the
ban meant atrazine would have to be phased out in Britain within
12 months: this means it would probably be withdrawn from use before
GM maize was grown commercially.
Last night Mr. Meacher said; "The ban on atrazine means that
the trials are no longer valid because they no longer make a true
comparison between the herbicides that would be used on GM and conventional
maize. Clearly we have now got to have further trials, using the
weed killers that are actually going to be used. I do not see how
the Government can now responsibly license GM crops."
Ministers will still be under pressure to try to find some way
of giving the green light to the technology. But the invalidation
of the tests and the outcome of the reports and public consultation
means environmentalists would almost certainly challenge any such
decision in the courts.