GM crops roll-out is blighted as MPs prepare to challenge No 10
By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Editor
29 February 2004
MPs are poised to reject the Government's plans to approve the growing of GM crops in Britain, just as ministers are preparing to announce them. The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, one of its two most powerful select committees, is putting the final touches to a report concluding that no modified crops should be cultivated commercially until more trials are carried out. This would delay their introduction until the end of the decade.
The MPs believe that the official trial of GM maize, which ministers are using to justify the go-ahead, is invalid and should be repeated. They want lessons to be learnt from North America, where genes from modified crops have contaminated organic and conventional produce.
Their report is due to be published at the end of this week, at the worst possible moment for the Government which is planning to announce in the next three weeks that it has given the technology its approval.
The timing of the report is explosive, as ministers are reeling from the leak of cabinet committee minutes 10 days ago. The minutes outlined plans for spinning the announcement to "wear down" public opposition to the technology. Downing Street officials are warning the Prime Minister there could be pitched battles in the fields during a general election campaign next spring.
Ministers last week let slip plans for a new period of public consultation on how far GM and traditional crops should be kept apart. This would give them an excuse to delay the planting of GM maize until after the election.
Pete Riley of Friends of the Earth said: "The Select Committee report is really going to put the cat among the pigeons and ruin the Government's plans to spin the announcement."
The report is by one of only two Commons committees mandated to examine policy across Whitehall. It has been deeply influenced by the discovery, first reported in The Independent on Sunday last October, that the maize trial has been invalidated by the banning of a controversial weedkiller called Atrazine, used on conventional crops.
The devastating effects of the herbicide ensured that growing conventional maize was more harmful to wildlife than cultivating the GM crop. However, with beet and oilseed rape, where Atrazine was not used, the reverse was the case. Ministers are using the results to justify going ahead with the modified variety, even though the banning of the chemical means they are no longer relevant.
The MPs believe approval should not be given until after new trails are carried out using the herbicides that replace Atrazine, and that these trials need to be run for at least four years.
They also believe ministers have not taken enough account of problems with GM crops in the US and Canada, where neighbouring crops have been contaminated and superweeds created.
In another blow for the industry, Bayer CropScience, which owns the maize about to be approved by ministers, has made the heads of its GM operations in Europe redundant.