14 June 2002

Public is right to worry about GM crops, says poll

PUBLIC concern about genetically modified crops is justified, according to an internet poll on the farmers weekly Interactive website.

Six in 10 respondents believe the public is right to worry about GM crops, says the FWi survey, which attracted 261 votes in the wake of a controversial BBC drama Fields of Gold. The subject will come under scrutiny again this Sunday when the BBC screens Bitter Harvest, a three-part documentary series about the biotechnology and the food industry.

The Fields of Gold thriller followed two reporters as they investigated suspicious deaths in an isolated village. The story involved the transfer of antibiotic resistant genes from GM crops to bacteria, producing a potentially deadly superbug, before one of the reporters eventually dowsed the fields in petrol and torched the crop.

But NFU president, Ben Gill, described the programme as a ridiculous work of fantasy. "Objectivity and sound science were thrown out of the window in Fields of Gold in favour of sensationalism and science fiction. It may have been exciting drama, but if it has set back sensible debate on this important subject, was it really worth it?"

Mr Gill urged farmers to contact the BBC if they were unhappy about the way farmers were portrayed in the drama, saying it contained inaccuracies about farming, animal welfare, the use of antibiotics and pesticides. "The programmes wildly distorted picture of farming has left British farmers fuming."

But Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, who co-wrote the drama, told the BBC website that the last thing some biotechnology companies wanted was an informed public debate about GM crops. "That is an alarming prospect for those who would rather have restricted this debate to a small elite," he said.

Nevertheless, environmentalists from the Genetic Engineering Network (GEN) of grassroots anti-GM campaigners, also criticised the programme. Joyce Hambling, from GENs London office, said the authors of the drama had not contacted the group. Anti-GM campaigners felt misrepresented and trvialised, she added.

"At the end of the day, it is a work of fiction – nobody jumped up and down about Day of the Triffids. But anti-GM campaigners have never burned a farmers land. Using petrol to set fire to fields is dangerous and makes us seem violent. Our campaign is about local people being involved in peaceful protests."

Ms Hambling also cast doubt on reports that real-life activists are trying to ruin trials of genetically modified crop by over-planting them with conventional seed. An e-mail purporting to be from the Brassica Broadcasting Corporation has claimed that activists had hand-sowed conventional seed over a GM rape trial in Warwickshire.

"It is possibly a hoax, because it would take so long to sow a field by hand," said Ms Hambling. Sowing conventional oilseed over a GM rape trial could risk release even more GM material into the environment, she added. "I am sure it has been considered and discussed, but it would need to be seed that looked like oilseed rape, and yet which would not cross-pollinate with the GM crop."

Aventis, the company which developed the GM oilseed rape used in the trial, also believes that the e-mail is probably a hoax. Paul Rylott, head of bioscience at Aventis, said: "The farmer in question is not aware of there being any unusual increase in plant population after the crop was drilled."

An independent scientist involved in monitoring GM trials told farmers weekly that the e-mail deserved to be taken seriously although it may be a "virtual" spoof. Geoff Squire, who works for the Scottish Crop Research Institute, said: "It is feasible to do what they have claimed."

Dr Squire said any effect on the trial would depend on how much conventional oilseed rape had been broadcast on top of the GM oilseed and when, he said. But he added: "An unexpected change in density in the sample would stick out like a sore thumb and if there is something out of the ordinary then it should be picked up." &#42