12 April 1999
New seed rules avert battle in High Court

By Jonathan Riley

THE government has promised to introduce new seed regulations by July in an attempt to avoid an embarrassing High Court battle with three MPs and an environmental group.

The move follows a legal challenge over the approval of genetically-modified (GM) seed by Norman Baker (Lib Dem), Alan Simpson (Lab), and John Randall (Con).

The group wanted a judicial review of last months government decision to bypass lengthy parliamentary procedures by including GM seed varieties within an existing approval scheme.

Friends of the Earth (FoE), which was also involved in the challenge, said the non-statutory scheme could have reduced the time needed to bring GMs to the market by up to two years.

The non-statutory scheme would have allowed GM seed to be “certified” for sale outside the statutory certification regime prior to entry on to the National Seed List.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture website, the scheme allows for seed to be marketed immediately after listing, “thereby permitting speedy commercialisation of new seed varieties”.

Peter Roderick, FoEs legal adviser, said the challenge was based on the governments proposal to allow certification of GM seeds without parliamentary approval.

And he divulged that government lawyers had responded to the request for a judicial review within 24 hours of the group visiting the High Court last week.

A letter from MAFF said: “We will be coming forward more quickly with specific proposals to amend the legislation in order to deal with the points you have raised.

“In the light of this we would invite you to agree to a stay of application [for a judicial review] pending the revision of the legislation.”

Mr Roderick said that FoE had to yet decide whether to continue its legal proceedings.

“The entire non-statutory approval scheme, under which the majority of all seed passes, has been run by MAFF since 1975 without ever passing before parliament,” he said. “It is, therefore, illegal too.”

That could mean any seed varieties which have passed through the non-statutory scheme will have to wait until new legislation is passed in July before being be certified.

One of the challenging MPs, Mr Baker, said that approval for GM crops was being rushed through despite important environmental and practical questions that remained unanswered.

“We still do not know enough about GM crops and how they will behave in the long term when released into the environment,” he said.

“Nobody yet knows – farmers or seed companies – who would be liable if things went wrong after planting.”