GM contaminated crop grown in blunder sparking fears gene will spread to other fields
By Sean Poulter
Daily Mail, 19 December 2008
A GM contaminated crop of oilseed rape has been illegally grown on a Somerset farm in a blunder that could see the genes spread to other fields, weeds and honey.
The problem involves a crop tainted with a GM trait developed by US biotech giant Monsanto, the main cheerleader for the controversial technology around the world.
The food and farming department Defra identified the error which threatens significant GM pollution of farmland and countryside.
It appears the tainted crop, created from seeds which originated in the United States, were sown on a large area of a Somerset farm in September last year.
The problem was not identified until the crop was harvested this summer when a link was drawn to another contamination incident involving the same seed in Scotland.
Critics say the GM alert provides further evidence of the lack of proper controls surrounding the growing of GM crops and the safety of this food.
The GM trait in the oilseed rape is designed to protect the plant against heavy spraying with weedkillers developed by Monsanto.
If this trait is transferred to related wild plants it could pass on this same chemical resistance, creating so-called superweeds.
It is known that GM pollen from crop trial sites can be carried up to 16 miles by bees.
There have been cases where honey has been contaminated with the result it is illegal to sell it.
The GM seeds involved in the Somerset contamination incident involved only a small part of a much bigger oilseed rape crop that was being grown by Monsanto on a seed production site.
The variety involved is known as GT73, which is authorised to be sold as human and animal feed in the EU but not to be grown here.
Friends of the Earth said the contamination was only the latest of a number of incidents involving the planting of crops and sale of food containing illegal GM DNA.
Its senior food campaigner, Clare Oxborrow, said: 'It's extremely worrying that once again contaminated and potentially unsafe GM seeds have been grown illegally in the UK.
'Local farmers and beekeepers face serious financial consequences if their crops or honey are found to be polluted.
'The Government must take urgent action to track down any contaminated crops, seeds or honey, and fully compensate for any financial losses.
'It must also beef up monitoring systems to ensure illegal GM seeds are detected and dealt with to prevent them being set loose in the environment.'
Once GM genes are present in the environment it is extremely difficult to remove them.
Sites used for crop trials in the past continue to produce a few GM plants for many years.
Experts from Defra's GM Inspectorate began looking at the Somerset site following reports of problems with the seed at trial locations in Scotland.
The new variety of oilseed rape, which was being grown at two sites in Aberdeenshire and one near Arbroath, were found to contain small amounts of unauthorised GM material in the summer.
Unlike in England, these plants had not matured and so the opportunity for GM pollen to spread was limited.
At the time, the Scottish Government's environment minister Michael Russell said the incident posed a 'serious risk' to the environment.
He said: 'Had these plants been allowed to mature, the risk to the environment could have been very serious.
'This further emphasises the continuing need for rigorous controls on GM material and for Scotland to remain a GM crop-free zone.'
In fact, the tainted crop in Somerset had matured with all the associated risks of gene transfer across a wide area.
Defra said that the Somerset crop and seeds, together with a crop from a neighbouring field, are being held in storage pending further tests.
It said: 'No GM material has entered the food chain.'
'The seed harvested from this trial, and an adjacent trial of spring oil seed rape, has been identified and is now being securely stored while the GM Inspectorate continues its investigation.
'None of the seed has been transported onwards to other destinations and the investigation has confirmed no other oilseed rape crops were grown in the vicinity at the time of the trial.'
Defra was unable to say what if any steps have been taken to ensure there has been no GM contamination of wild plants and honey in the area.
In 2005, British researchers found that genes from a GM version of oilseed rape had transferred to two wild relatives during farm trials in this country.
The GM oilseed rape was genetically modified to have a resistance to a weedkiller commonly used on farms and gardens.
This was apparently transferred to field mustard - brassica rapa - and charlock.
Monsanto said it was not involved in the suspect trials either in Scotland or Somerset.
It said a third party firm had supplied the seeds which happened to contain traits from a Monsanto GM plant.
A spokesman described the rules in Britain and Europe which currently prevents the contamination of crops and food with non-approved GM as 'absurd'.
He said: 'GT73 is grown on thousands of acres of farmland in the USA. It is approved as safe for consumption. This case shows up the absurdity of EU rules on GM.'
NOTE: This follows hard on the heels of experimental GM cottonseed going into livestock feed after a contamination incident in the US.