Government misleading public over GM trials

19 February 1999

Government ‘misleading public’ over GM trials

By Johann Tasker

AN AREA approaching the size of the City of London was planted with genetically modified (GM) crops last year, despite government claims that field-scale trials will start this spring.

The entire area now covered by trials is “about the size of two pitches in the whole of England”, claimed junior agriculture minister Jeff Rooker on Thursday (18 February).

Most of those trials are the “size of a dining table”, and field-scale trials will start in April this year, he told the Today programme on Radio 4.

But FWi can reveal that consent was granted last year for a GM oilseed rape trial area approaching the size of Londons Square Mile.

The size of the trial was confirmed in a parliamentary written answer from Angela Eagle, the junior environment minister, to Alan Simpson, Labour MP for Nottingham South.

“The total area covered by this release is not more than 200ha (494 acres),” wrote Ms Eagle.

The trial was authorised to take place between 1 March, 1998 and 1 November, 2000, with the GM rape to be grown at 15 sites across the country.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture denied that Mr Rooker had deliberately understated the area of land used for GM crop trials.

“Jeffs comment about the two football pitches was about the area actually under cultivation at the moment,” he said.

“Obviously were in February which is the middle of winter, and so theres not much being grown.”

But environmental groups accused Mr Rooker of misleading the public both over the area of GM crops grown in the UK and the size of the trial sites.

“These arent little strips of land – these are the size of small farms,” said Adrian Bebb, food campaigner with Friends of the Earth.

The GM rape in question is modified to produce oil containing lauric acid, a key raw material used in the production of detergents, soaps and personal hygiene products.

The GM rape was developed by Calgene, a US-based biotech company which hopes the new variety will replace imported coconut and palm kernel oil from Asia.

First, though, Calgene will have to convince a sceptical public that its GM oilseed rape poses no risk to human health or the environment.

The company is a subsidiary of Monsanto, the biotech firm fined £17,000 earlier this week for breaching safety regulations at a trial site for GM rape in Lincolnshire.

“My main worry is that there will be serious cross-contamination problems with oilseed rape on neighbouring farms,” said Mr Bebb.

“It could be that we have high laurate oil which hasnt been tested for food safety getting into the food chain.”

That possibility was dismissed by Stewart Green of John K King Ltd, the Essex-based seed company which holds the consent for overseeing the GM rape trial in the UK.

The licence to conduct the trial requires the GM rape to be grown at least 50m away from conventional rape varieties, said Mr Green.

But the company goes further than requested and ensures that the GM rape is grown surrounded by a “minimum isolation” distance of 400m, he claimed.

“We made sure there was a more than adequate distance there from other crops so I dont really see there is a valid argument.”

See more