19 May 2000

GMmaize trial divides Wales

FLINTSHIRE farmer John Cottles decision to go ahead with a genetically modified maize trial has forced the National Assembly to re-examine its powers.

Members voted against national listing of the genetically modified variety T25, but were overruled by agriculture secretary Christine Gwyther on the advice of her legal team. But both she and her committee believed that they could make Wales a GM-free area.

When it became clear that one of a dozen sites for research into the effects of GM maize on wildlife and the environment was in Wales, she appealed to environment minister Michael Meacher for help. But he said he could not intervene to prevent the sowing of 1ha (2.5 acres) of an EU approved Aventis variety inside the Wales border at Birchenfield Farm, Sealand.

However, legal opinions obtained by Friends of the Earth and the assembly presiding officers own legal adviser claimed that planting could have been stopped. Immediately Tory AMs tabled a vote of no confidence against Ms Gwyther, the third in the year since her appointment.

A statement from Catherine Eva, the EUs representative in Wales, that the commission had made no legal challenge to GM crop bans imposed in Austria and one province of Italy, intensified the Tories anger even though Ms Gwyther pledged to look into the implications of the statement.

But other AMs were reluctant to support action that could again demonstrate the limit of their powers particularly as a successful previous motion failed to get Ms Gwyther removed from office and a public opinion poll revealed that only 15% of Welsh voters approved the assemblys performance.

&#8226 Stop Press:AMs voted against the censure 26-9, with 20 abstensions.

Malcolm Thomas, director of NFU Cymru-Wales, described the whole GM issue as yet another shambles that threatened the assemblys credibility.

"We have all these contradictory legal interpretations, members of what was hailed as a new inclusive form of government using sound bites to score party political points, and totally confused farmers," claimed Mr Thomas. "We need an immediate definitive legal opinion on what the assembly can and cannot do and a bit of working together to help farmers through the current crisis."