"Secret" GM crop trial in Britain
GM crops being grown in Britain
Louise Gray, Environment Correspondent
The Telegraph, 27 July 2009
*Genetically-modified crops are being grown in Britain for the first time in a year after controversial trials of the plants were "secretly" restarted.
Cultivation of a field of potatoes designed to be resistant to pests were abandoned over a year ago when environmental protesters ripped up the crop
But, without alerting the public as is usual when such trials begin, the project has been restarted, prompting environmental groups to warn that local farms and nearby residents could be put at risk.
The 400 plants in the field, near Tadcaster in North Yorkshire, were removed just weeks after planting in May 2008 as a result of damage caused by unidentified environmentalists.
However, the Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs maintains that the original permission for the trial to begin - granted for three years - remains valid and the crops can be replanted without giving further notice.
Campaigners accused ministers of trying to "slip it under the radar" and warned the trial could affect human health.
Defra said the potatoes, that will not be used for human or animal consumption, will be grown in a safe environment where there is no risk of contamination. The potatoes will be grown next to plants that will later be destroyed and the whole area will be left fallow for some years after the trial.
Fencing, CCTV cameras and guards will protect the crops from being ripped up again.
Almost all of the 54 GM crop trials which have been conducted since 2000 have been targeted by opponents and vandalised. A trial in Cambridgeshire was also abandoned last year when trees were uprooted.
However ministers are being lobbied by biotechnology companies and support for GM is growing again as experts warn of food shortages caused by the growing population and climate change.
The Leeds University trial is looking at potatoes that are resistant to a microscopic parasitic worm, the nematode, which costs British farmers £65m per year.
However Clare Oxborrow, food campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said an antibiotic resistant gene used in the potato could have potential health implications if it escapes. She was also concerned about pollen being blown into neighbouring fields.
"Defra clearly does not want people to know it is going on this year. This worries us because farmers, gardeners and people living nearby should know about it because of the risk of contaminating other plants with an untested GM product," she said.
"They are trying to slip it under the radar."
However a Defra spokesman insisted all the trials that are given permission are published online.
"The Leeds University application was considered by the independent Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, which confirmed the trial would not compromise human health or the environment," she said.
"The GM potatoes won't be used for food or animal feed, and the statutory consent specifies precautionary conditions to ensure that GM material does not persist at the trial site after the trial."
A University of Leeds spokesman insisted the trial could help boost industry and feed people.
"While we are aware of the public interest in this issue, it is vital that any debate is based on scientific fact rather than speculation and our academics have an important contribution to make in this respect," he said.
Under current EU rules, scientists have to publish the map reference for every GM field trial. However ministers are understood to be reviewing the rules so more trials can go ahead without threat of disruption.