Government to defy critics with secret GM crop trials
By Andrew Grice, Political Editor
The Independent, 17 November 2008
Ministers are drawing up plans for genetically-modified crops to be grown in secret and more secure locations to prevent trials being wrecked by saboteurs.
They may ask the police to target opponents of GM crops in the way that they have cracked down on animal rights protesters. Another option is for the controversial crops to be grown at a secure government site such as Porton Down near Salisbury, which carries out military research and includes a science park where they could be securely developed away from the public.
The Independent disclosed in June that the Government wants a new public debate on whether GM foods could hold the answer to global food shortages and rising prices. Gordon Brown is moving cautiously, saying he will be guided by scientific experts, because of strong public opposition to previous trials notably from young mothers.
However, no experiments are currently underway in Britain after 400 potato plants were destroyed on a farm run by the University of Leeds in June. Almost all of the 54 GM crop trials which have been conducted since 2000 have been targeted by opponents and vandalised.
Under current rules, scientists must disclose the location of trials on a government website, thereby making it easy for anti-GM protesters to find them. Ministers are now ready to scrap that rule. A review of the security arrangements has also been ordered by Hilary Benn, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary and Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary.
Mr Benn said: "We need to see if they [GM foods] have a contribution to make and we won't know the answer about their environmental impact unless we run controlled experiments. It's important to go with the science."
A government source added: "We need to review the security arrangements. The rules are a charter for people who want to stop the experiments. A lot of information has to be put in the public domain and that makes it very easy for people to trash them."
Lord Mandelson backs the Cabinet's decision that GM policy must depend on science but is anxious to prevent Britain's biotechnology industry falling behind its overseas competitors.
He was a supporter of GM foods in his previous job as a European commissioner, where he tried to change the EU's cautious approach to GM licensing. In a speech last year, he argued: "Safe biotechnology has a crucial role to play in agriculture and agricultural trade both in Europe and the developing world."
Lord Mandelson urged governments, the Commission and the biotech industry to do a better job of setting out the issues. "While technology determines what is possible, consumer demand determines what is economically viable. Public fears may be misplaced, but they cannot and should not be dismissed," he said.
Leeds University plans to make one final attempt to conduct its field trial. It will ask the Government to foot an estimated GBP100,000 bill for installing fences, security cameras and guards on its farm so that the trial is not sabotaged by opponents.
Professor Tim Benton, research dean at its Faculty of Biological Science, said yesterday: "We need to find a way to do crop trials in a safe way and to minimise the environmental risk. We cannot carry on for the next 20 or 30 years saying it's too scary, the public is too frightened, it is politically too dangerous. There is absolutely no way we can move towards a world with food security without using GM technology. The amount of food we need could double because the population is growing, climate change will reduce yields and we will take land out of food production for biofuels."
Ministers, who have been lobbied by the biotechnology industry to improve security at trial sites, are drawing a parallel between anti-GM protesters and opponents of experiments on animals. The law was changed in 2005 to give police new powers to prosecute activists after Huntingdon Life Sciences was targeted and attacked by animal rights extremists.
NOTE: Porton Down was originally set up to support the British use of chemical warfare. Later it moved into biological warfare. It's been at the centre of a series of unethical human experimentation scandals, eg