14 September 2001

GMtrials put in dock

By Isabel Davies

REPRESENTATIVES of the biotechnology industry say they are committed to farm-scale trials of genetically modified crops despite criticisms of the way they have been handled in the UK.

The Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops (SCIMAC) – the body set up to oversee the commercialisation of GM crops – has pledged to improve arrangements for providing information about trials and to give local people more of a say in what goes on.

It has also backed comments made in a report by the governments advisers on GMs that the trials will not provide enough evidence to allow commercialisation.

A statement said: "SCIMAC agrees that the farm-scale evaluations are not, and never have been, the only basis for decisions relating to the commercialisation of GM crops in the UK."

The Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commissions report, Crops on Trial, says that ethical concerns as well as strategic and economic issues must be taken into account. While farm scale evaluations will offer valuable data, the results should not be seen as the "final piece of the jigsaw".

The report also calls for more consultation with local people about the choice of trial sites. Failure to communicate effectively "have made it seem like the trials have been conceived and designed in a secretive way, with key players not fully engaged".

A spokesman for SCIMAC said the specific remit for the farm-scale evaluations should be clearly communicated in public.

"SCIMAC believes this will help to reduce the scope for confusion or concern about other safety issues which have already been addressed through the regulatory system."

The report, published on Monday (Sept 10), says ministers and officials have fostered the impression that the decision on commercialisation will be made solely on the results of the trials.

The impasse between the organic sector and SCIMAC is highlighted as another problem area by the report, which suggests that separation distances are established between GM and organic crops so that current organic standards can continue to be maintained.

But Colin Merritt, biotechnology manager for Monsanto, says this had been interpreted wrongly as meaning increased separation distances would be required. "The report states that government and industry should work together to ensure adequate separation distances," he said.

Pete Riley, food campaigner for Friends of the Earth, says the AEBCs report pointed out the inadequacies that riddled the GM trials. "The GM trials have always been far more about politics than about rigorous science." &#42