16 August 2002

Ministers suspend GM crop-testing

By Paul Kelbie and Marie Woolf

The Government's controversial GM crop-testing programme was thrown into disarray yesterday after it emerged that a number of fields had been contaminated with unauthorised seeds since the trials began three years ago.

Ministers ordered the suspension of the final phase of the farm-scale trials, which had been scheduled to begin next week, after a variety of unauthorised genetically modified oilseed rape was grown in 14 fields in England and Scotland. It had been mixed illegally with other GM seeds which were being sown to test their effects on the environment.

Government inspectors visited Aventis, the biotechnology company responsible for producing the seeds, in April, but failed to detect the problem. It was spotted during a routine inspection by the Scottish Agricultural College of the experimental crops in Scotland.

The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said the contamination did not present any danger to public health. But the affair will undermine confidence in the regulatory safeguards and monitoring structures of the trials.

The unauthorised variety of oilseed rape, which is not licensed for sale or planting in Britain, contains an extra gene which has been modified to make it resistant to at least two types of antibiotics.

The European Union has called for all GM plants containing this antibiotic-resistant marker gene to be phased out, because of fears that animals and humans eating such GM food could eventually develop immunity to drugs.

Defra admitted yesterday that the discovery of the wrong GM strain was a "very serious breach" of GM regulations.

The seeds in question were sown as part of the Farm Scale Evaluations in England in 1999 at three sites, in 2000 at six sites and are currently being grown at 12 sites in England and two in Scotland. Aventis informed the Government of the contamination on 7 August, and a committee of government experts was asked to investigate the same day. The company could face prosecution with unlimited fines or five-year prison sentences if found guilty of
breaching the rules.

Environmental campaigners suggested that other "alien" GM seeds could have crept into the trials without being noticed, rendering the field trials invalid.