2 June 1995

Modified crops slowed down by UK red tape

Regulations governing the release of genetically engineered crops are too stringent a recent Society of Chemical Industries conference heard.

Robert Harris probes deeper

REGULATIONS governing the trialling and release of genetically engineered plants must be improved if Europe is to stay in the race to provide farmers with better crops.

The USA remains "way ahead" of other countries, says Nigel Poole at Zeneca Seeds Jealotts Hill Research Station. "They show no signs of slowing down. Its a classic race, and theres a lot at stake."

His company is working on several genetically modified plants. Better-flavoured processing tomatoes which store well, herbicide-tolerant oilseed rape, sugar beet and maize, disease-resistant rape and several industrial crops are all in the pipeline.

But European farmers will have to wait much longer for these than their American counterparts, it seems. Last year the USA ran 1800 field trials on a range of crops, nine times as many as in Europe. Other areas are forging ahead too – the Pacific Rim is very active. It is rumoured that China alone is already growing 100,000ha (240,000 acres) of genetically-modified crops.

UK and other European farmers will lose out if this continues, maintains Dr Poole. Companies will continue to invest where they can see quick returns. Competitors, especially American farmers, stand to gain an advantage.

As far as trials are concerned, UK regulations are easing with experience, he adds. "Three or four years ago, they were very Draconian." Some crops have now been categorised as low risk and are eligible for the new Fastrack system.

But companies need to work across Europe to ensure large enough markets. Each country has its own regulations, creating miles of red tape. "Its long and drawn out. If were going to be European, lets all start behaving as Europeans."

Dr Poole believes the process can be simplified without adding to risk. "Its daft that we have to go through all this when a competent country like the US is already growing many of the same crops. They have already done risk assessments on these – lets accept them here."

According to Jean Train of the Department of the Environment, international co-operation is gathering pace. "The UK and Netherlands have developed guidelines, which have been taken up by the United Nations Environmental Programme."

The Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development is also working to harmonise procedures worldwide, she says. The US and UK have taken this a step further with bi-lateral meetings.