Britain faces new harvest of GM crops
Jonathan Leake, Science Editor
BRITAIN could face pressure to allow a new wave of genetically modified crops to be planted around the country and grown for commercial sale and consumption.
This week the European parliament is likely to end a three-year moratorium which has blocked all new attempts by manufacturers to get licences. Fourteen applications for new GM crops are already pending and manufacturers are thought to be planning to submit many more.
The move coincides with revelations from scientists involved in trials of GM crops in Britain that they appear to be having a damaging impact on wildlife. The full results will not be published until the trials conclude in 2003.
Among the new crops for which licences are being sought are tomatoes modified to have a thicker skin - so they do not burst during transport - and potatoes that produce extra starch.
There are different types of maize, some with two genetic modifications enabling them to resist herbicide and also to produce their own insecticide to kill pests trying to eat them. Others include beet, oil-seed rape and cotton that all resist herbicides and chicory that is engineered not to produce flowers.
Environmentalists say such crops promote the use of toxic chemicals, destroy the weed plants and insects on which much wildlife feeds, and risk spreading artificial genes into wild plant populations with unforeseeable consequences.
The moratorium was put in place while the European parliament considered amendments to strengthen outdated laws controlling new crops.
The proposals will be voted upon on Wednesday and, whether they are accepted or rejected, the moratorium will then come to an end. This will lead to pressure from the companies behind the applications who have spent billions of pounds creating GM crops that they cannot yet use in Europe.
David Bowe, the Labour MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber who has piloted the amendments through parliament, believes that widespread use of GM crops is inevitable and wants a tough new regulatory regime.
His proposals include forcing companies to assess the environmental impact of GM crops, make them renew their licences every 10 years, label all products containing GM ingredients and establish public registers showing what GM work they are carrying out and where.
A spokesman for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions said manufacturers and farmers could theoretically start planting GM seeds next year.
One ecologist involved in assessing the trials said that destroying all the weeds and insects that normally live alongside crops would damage wildlife. "The early results confirm it is not a question of whether there is an impact, it is how big it is," he said.