Government signals GM cool-off
Wednesday, 30 January, 2002, 11:06 GMT
The government has hinted it may be cooling its attitude towards genetically modified crops, after it called for a fresh public debate on the issue. Even if the results of GM field trials around the UK due next year - are successful, ministers may not approve the technology, despite previously insisting the decision would be based on science alone.
"I have always passionately believed in the need for a measure of public acceptance". -Environment Minister Michael Meacher
Concerns surrounding GM technology centre on the impact on the environment, wildlife and human health. The government has asked the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission (AEBC), the independent UK advisory body on the issue, to organise a public debate on attitudes to genetic modification. Environment Minister Michael Meacher signalled the results would be taken seriously, telling BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Government needs to listen."
He said public debate had always been "implicit" in ministers' thinking on GM, but stressed: "This isn't an easy issue. "On the one hand you've got farmers who do have the right to cultivate what they like, so long as it's not a danger to public health or the environment.
Michael Meacher said government would stay out of the debate
"On the other hand, people in a democratic society do have a right to express their views, to have their questions answered, to have their fears and their anxieties taken into account by the authorities. "It is to reconcile these conflicting interests in a very polarised public debate that we're now looking to the AEBC to help organise a more profound and thorough public debate than we've yet had in this country." Mr Meacher also hinted he agreed with the AEBC that the results of the ongoing field-scale trials should only be a small part of the decision-making process. Asked whether the government could reject GM technology even if the trial results were positive, the minister replied: "That's a very important point." AEBC chairman Professor Malcolm Grant told Today the government had a dilemma, with a narrow regulatory framework, widespread public concern and the European Union's consent-giving process currently frozen. "The government's going to have to try and draw together these very disparate elements before it takes a decision that not only gets public acceptability of the technology but will also allow for a new approach to agriculture in the UK in which different types of agriculture can co-exist," he said.
Mr Meacher stressed the debate would be independent of the government. And he said it had not been decided if the debate should be over whether to allow GM cultivation or over the extent of regulation that should govern its use. But Prof Grant said: "My view is that we need to have a public debate about those options." "If it is to have any credibility and to produce for government some reliable advice, it has got to be right across all the options. You can't have a fettered public debate." Mr Meacher added that another issue also needed to be aired: the acceptable level of GM content in shop-bought food. A product labelled non-GM can currently have up to 1% GM content, he pointed out.
Wednesday, 30 January, 2002, 11:06 GMT
Commercial growing of GM crops to be debated
By Giselle Jones
Farmers Guardian January 25, 2002
COMMERCIALLY-grown GM crops failed to get the green light from Westminster this week as DEFRA Secretary of State Margaret Beckett called for a public debate on whether such crops could go ahead.
Responding to a critical report 'Crops on Trial' from the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission, Mrs Beckett said there was a case for separation distances between the GM sites and neighbouring farms 'to be massively increased' to protect the non-GM crops. In the response, the Government distanced itself from the results of the farm scale trials (FSEs) by declaring the decision on growing GM will now 'be based on more analyses of the FSE results' and that 'there will be a public debate on the possible commercial growing of GM crops'. The Government has asked the AEBC to advise by the end of April 2002 'how and when to promote an effective public debate on possible commercialisation' of the crops, and how to make best use of the results of the debate. The Government was particularly concerned on gauging public acceptability of GM crops, in particular, cross-pollination thresholds and GM presence in organic crops. The AEBC also called for 'adequate separation distances for the remaining trials' to ensure current organic standards can continue to be maintained. It also said the public needed to have the objectives and limitations of the trials spelled out. Mrs Beckett's response was, given the amount of GM crops grown worldwide, it would be very difficult to guarantee that any product or seed is completely GM- free. "The presence of GM material should be kept as low as possible and thresholds should continue to reflect the capability of detection methods and the ability of the supply chain to deliver," she said. On separation distances, the current limits aim to reduce cross contamination to 1 per cent, which means 50m for conventional oilseed rape. The Government now claims 'there is a case for separation distances to be greater so as to ensure a maximum of, for example, 0.1 per cent cross-pollination'. This would involve massive distances as EC proposals last year for oilseed rape seed production to achieve a contamination threshold of 0.3 per cent would meant a separation distance of 5km. Friends of the Earth's Adrian Bebb said: "Current GM separation distances are woefully inadequate. A small country like Britain can't grow GM and non-GM crops together."
Mrs Beckett said final decisions on commercialisation would be for the UK Government to take in conjunction with the devolved administrations and other member states.
Locations for new genetically modified oilseed rape and beet sites will be announced by DEFRA next week as part of the Government's last round of three- year farm scale trials - six weeks before the first seeds are sown.
Locations proposed for maize, which is sown slightly later, will be looked at in February. The Government will announce these sites in the week beginning March 11.
Experts on the independent Scientific Steering Committee recommended up to 32 oilseed rape and 25 beet sites. The total number of sites over the three-year programme, 60 to 75 for each crop, is unchanged. A list of spring locations will be agreed between the SSC, SCIMAC - the farming and biotechnology industry body - and farmers. DEFRA will then be notified of the six-figure grid references for the selected sites. The proposed sites will also be advertised in local newspapers. Scientists are already studying the effects on wildlife of the use of specific herbicides associated with GM crops, compared with the conventional chemicals at 178 farm scale evaluation sites across the UK. Researchers count the number of weeds, bees, butterflies and beetles in trial fields. DEFRA said seeds and plants have been through years of strict tests in laboratories, greenhouses and small plots of land. DEFRA officials will assess proposed sites against the risk assessment in the research consents for the spring-sown oilseed rape and beet. These assessments will be made available on the DEFRA website. DEFRA said there would be no commercial growing of GM crops until the trials are completed and only then if the crops and associated farming practices are assessed as causing no unacceptable effects on the environment. So far, researchers have investigated the effects on wildlife of the herbicide management associated with GM crops at 34 maize, 43 spring sown oilseed rape, 51 autumn sown rape and 50 beet sites.