by Steve Dube
Western Mail, March 18 2008
PROPOSALS by the Welsh Assembly Government will effectively ban genetically modified crops from Wales.
New regulations, if adopted, will set Wales apart from England in applying a strict 'polluter pays' principle that will put an end even to trial plantings.
GM companies have consistently resisted efforts to make them accept responsibility for 'leaks' of GM material and Defra's proposals for England stop short of pinning liability on the operator or permit holder in the event of environmental or economic damage.
But in Wales the WAG proposals make GM companies like Monsanto and Bayer and the farmers who plant GM crops legally liable for contamination or 'genetic trespass' even if they have a licence and even if scientific knowledge at the time leads them to believe the material was harmless.
The move puts clear water between the administrations in Cardiff Bay and London and takes Welsh opposition to GM science to new levels.
'We have a particular commitment on GM,' said Wales Rural Affairs Minister Elin Jones.
'It was reinforced by the One Wales Government programme last year where we have a commitment to ensure the maximum restriction of GM crops in Wales.
'We are now consulting on implementing regulations that reflect our aspirations and promoting the concept that the polluter pays.'
The consultation period ends in mid-May, and Ms Jones said she did not foresee any particular difficulties in taking a different course from England, where GM crop farmers would become liable in the event of contamination on the Welsh side of the border.
'Border issues will arise along any boundaries between EU countries, but it’s the right of this Assembly Government to exercise the powers we have to pursue our political aspiration,' she said.
'This is supported by a number of environmental groups and certain farming interests also want us to retain our GM free status.'
The supporters include the Farmers' Union of Wales, which is a member of the GM Free Alliance a group of environmental and countryside organisations which includes the RSPB, Friends of the Earth Cymru and GM Free Cymru.
Organic farmer and FUW vice-president Brian Walters said the threat of cross-contamination was one of the major concerns that led the FUW to oppose GM crops.
'Obviously it would be completely unfair if a non-GM farmer's income suffered as a result of wind or insect-borne cross-pollination that was beyond their control, and we welcome WAG's suggestion that a more pragmatic approach be taken in Wales,' said Mr Walters.
'The draft Welsh regulations provide security for Welsh farmers, whereas Defra has left English farmers that are put at risk out in the cold.'
The GM Free Wales Alliance has written to Elin Jones to congratulate her and the Assembly Government on what they describe as 'the latest step in the protection of Welsh farming and the Welsh environment'.
Brian John of GM Free Cymru said he expected the other devolved administrations in Scotland and Northern Ireland to follow the Welsh lead.
'There is a degree of frustration that Westminster continues to vote in favour of GM approval at EU level despite the reservations that the other three authorities have,' said Mr John.
'Westminster always pushes a pro-GM agenda in the EU, despite the fact that it’s not the majority view but a distinctly English line.'
Mr John said anti-GM campaigners were delighted with the Welsh approach
'The GM industry has always refused to accept liability on the basis that if something is harmless, as they say it is, they can't be liable if something goes wrong,' said Mr John.
'The Welsh regulations say that neither the state-of-the-art nor the legal permit defences can be used and is exactly what we and bodies like the RSPB have been asking for.'
A spokesman for Monsanto said the proposal was inconsistent with EU guidelines on co-existence with conventional and organic crops.
'These specify that member state rules should respect the right of both non-GM and GM farmers to grow the crops of their choice,' he said.
'Furthermore, since approximately 85% of compound animal feed throughout the UK already contains imported GM ingredients, due to the large shortage of home produced protein, we would have concern that in the long run this proposal would put the majority of Welsh livestock farmers at a serious competitive disadvantage, and merely drive livestock production overseas.'
He said the cultivation of GM crops is increasing world-wide, with more than 100 million hectares grown every year by 10 million farmers.
'Most of the world is moving on from the tired old debate of 10 years ago and accepting that biotechnology has a place to play alongside a range of farming methods,' he said.