24 July 1998

Seed trial law under scrutiny by MAFF men

MAFFs lawyers have begun a review of the laws governing all seed trials and may have to introduce retrospective legislation because trials have not been conducted according to the Seed Regulations Act.

The issue – first reported by FW last week ( July 17) – came to light during Devon farmer Guy Watsons failed attempt to force the destruction of a genetically modified maize trial next to his organic sweetcorn.

Mr Watson feared he would lose his organic status if the GM maize cross-pollinated his crop. But, this week, he lost his High Court appeal against a ruling which allowed the trial to continue.

During the trial the governments barrister acknowledged that, since 1995, seed trials for national lists had been conducted without providing two years worth of data and were, therefore, technically illegal.

Real requirement

Summing up, Lord Justice Simon Brown said that until the regulations were amended, the government could not simply ignore the requirement for replicated trials.

Speaking after the appeal ruling a MAFF official said: "This means that our lawyers will now have to review the regulations. We cannot comment on whether that means new legislation, an amendment or retrospective measures. But judgement will be made in due course."

After the court hearing, all parties claimed victory.

Despite MAFFs acceptance that the Seed Regulations Act had not been followed, National Institute of Agricultural Botany director John MacLeod said he was happy with the result because it showed NIAB had conducted its trials correctly.

"We have no axe to grind over GMs. Our sole purpose is to conduct trials and release the results," he added.

Owners of the modified maize variety, Sharpes Seeds, who have spent about £600,000 on the trials, were relieved that Mr Watsons appeal had been rejected. The GM maize would continue to be grown, and would be harvested this autumn.

But Mr Watsons backers, the Soil Association and Friends of the Earth, also claimed they had secured an important victory.

Whether or not Mr Watson keeps his organic status will be decided next month. The Soil Association will monitor the GM maize when it flowers and assess the risk of cross-pollination with the organic sweetcorn. Association officials will then meet UKROS, the governments organic farming authority, in late August to determine Mr Watsons fate.