23 October 1998

Close monitor

will control GM

crop release

By Shelley Wright

GENETICALLY modified (GM) herbicide tolerant crops will be released under strict government supervision and their environmental impact will be closely monitored.

Environment minister Michael Meacher and junior farm minister Jeff Rooker announced a package of measures on Wed which, they hoped, would strike the right balance between protecting the environment and human health while maintaining the confidence needed by businesses involved in developing new products.

They also revealed that, after discussion with biotechnology firms, no insect resistant GM crops would be introduced in the UK for the next three years.

"I think it is right to be cautious at this relatively early stage of the large scale use of the technology in the environment and to make sure that for every product we have practical evidence on safety before we take a decision to move to commercialisation," Mr Meacher said.

The two ministers, giving evidence to a House of Lords select committee on GMs, said government planned a programme of managed development of GM crops, with the first commercial plantings strictly limited.

A new ministerial group to monitor the crops progress and the environmental impact would be established, chaired by former farm minister Jack Cunningham.

Dr Cunninghams group would work alongside the existing Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment (ACRE).

Mr Meacher said he had considered recent calls by the governments wildlife advisers English Nature for a moratorium on GM crops.

"I feel strongly that the use of GM crops in agriculture must not put unacceptable pressure of our countryside and wildlife, and prejudice our goal of maintaining and, where possible, enhancing farmland biodiversity," he said.

Limiting the first farm-scale plantings and monitoring the modified crops environmental impact alongside commercial plantings of conventional crops was crucial. "It is extremely important that we do not travel further down the road to commercialisation of GM crops before we have this information," said Mr Meacher.

The government would also re-assess herbicides to be used on GM herbicide-tolerant crops. And it was looking at the introduction of long term monitoring arrangements.

Roger Turner, chairman of SCIMAC, the cross-industry group which aims to support the safe, responsible and effective introduction of GM crops in the UK, said he was extremely pleased that the government had adopted a pragmatic approach to the introduction of GM technology.