11 October 2000
Watchdog slams GM safeguards

By FWi staff

GOVERNMENT environmental watchdogs say safeguards designed to prevent cross-pollination from genetically modified crops are “inadequate”.

English Nature has called for new breeding techniques to ensure genetically modified material in GM crops cannot spread to other crops or to wild relatives.

At present, farm-scale GM trials follow guidelines set out by pro-GM industry group SCIMAC.

These are intended to prevent the spread of “transgenes” – genes inserted into plants to give them specific traits such as herbicide tolerance and insect resistance.

But English Nature biotechnology advisor Dr Brian Johnson doubts these can prevent cross-pollination.

He said: “In our view, it is unlikely that the SCIMAC code of practice for growing GM crops will be enough to ensure that transgenes stay where they are put.”

This follows news that in greenhouse conditions biotech company KWS Saat unwittingly created a GM beet resistant to two widely used herbicides.

The Aventis contractors had intended to make the beet resistant to the herbicide glufosinate.

But transgenes from another trial made the beet, grown on experimental sites in Britain and other countries, resistant to glyphosate.

It is suspected that this may have been caused by cross-pollination.

Although these plants will not flower and can be destroyed, if they had cross-bred with other varieties or wild relatives, it could have created a serious problem.

Dr Johnson said: “If the biotechnology industry cant control the spread of transgenes under experimental conditions, there is little chance of containment if commercial releases take place.

“These accidental unauthorised releases in Europe show that genetic isolation of some GM crops is urgently needed.”

English Nature recommends that the GM industry look closely at the possibility of using genetic and other techniques to ensure that transgenes cannot transfer.

Shadow Agriculture Minister Tim Yeo urged the Government to follow English Natures advice and improve controls.

He said the Governments “incompetence” is putting the rural environment and farmers livelihoods at risk.

SCIMAC says its guidelines are based upon robust, internationally recognised distances used in the UK for 35 years without incident.