18 August 2002

More GM crop trials break test guidelines

By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Editor

Four more of the Government's troubled GM trials have gone alarmingly wrong, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

In a bizarre development, the stubble of harvested GM oilseed rape resprouted late last autumn, putting out new flowers in November – according to an as yet unpublished official investigation.

Neither the Government's regulators nor Aventis, the GM company conducting the trials, spotted the reflowering of the rape, which spread modified pollen in four separate counties. It only came to light when a farmer near one of the sites notified Friends of the Earth.

The revelation follows last week's disclosure that Aventis has sown unauthorised seed, carrying controversial antibiotic genes, at 23 sites in England and Scotland, in what the Government admits was "a very serious breach" of GM regulations.

Ministers have suspended the final phase of the trials, which were due to start next week, and the company may be prosecuted; senior executives could face five years in jail and unlimited fines. Again, the inspectorate was ignorant of the breach; officials first found out about it when the company told them about it.

News of the reflowering rape will further undermine confidence in the company and the inspectorate, and cast even more doubt on the trails, which the Government had been planning to use to justify a decision to grow the crops commercially next year.

Yesterday, Pete Riley of Friends of the Earth said: "If a GM company and the regulatory authorities cannot run a test site properly, how can we trust them to ensure that commercial crops are grown properly in Britain?"

The report, by the GM inspectorate, dated 22 May, says that the reflowering rape was found last winter at trial sites at Witham on the Hill in Lincolnshire, Brind in North Yorkshire, Winfarthing in Norfolk, and Wormington in Gloucestershire.

Aventis was bound by strict conditions to stop the rape flowering again. But these only covered the danger of flowers appearing on new plants seeded from the harvested crop, as no one foresaw that the rape could resprout.

The inspectorate therefore concluded that Aventis had not breached its conditions, though senior officials admit that this amounted to letting it off on a "technicality".

Paul Rylott, head of bioscience at Aventis said that the company had implemented recommendations by the inspectorate to prevent the problem happening again.