13 June 2002

Prince's GM fears dismissed

By Robert Uhlig, Farming Correspondent

The biotechnology industry yesterday dismissed the Prince of Wales's outspoken attack on genetically modified crops as irrelevant and out of touch with existing legislation.

But anti-GM campaigners said the Prince had highlighted the two issues - co-existence with conventional agriculture and liability for economic or environmental damage - that would dominate the GM debate for the next two years.

Speaking to environmentalists in Germany on Tuesday, Prince Charles called for firms that developed GM crops to be made "liable" for any damage their products caused.

However, Stephen Smith, chairman of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, said yesterday that under existing legislation his members, which include major GM crop developers such as Monsanto, Aventis and Syngenta, would be fully liable for any of their products that caused damage, whether they were GM or not.

"We welcome the Prince's contribution to this valuable debate but the industry has a very fundamental standing on liability," he said.

"We will cover all products for which we are liable and we do not see a need for a distinction for GM products."

He added that a European Commission Environmental Liability Directive would "enshrine liability for GM products, like conventional agricultural products, on their producers".

Mr Smith also rejected the Prince's concern that GM crops posed an "acute threat to organic farmers and all those consumers who actually wish to exercise a right of choice about what they eat".

He said: "Coexistence between GM and organic is a fundamental issue for us. None of our members are exclusively GM investors. We also make organic seeds and it has never been a wish that there should ever be just one strain of farming."

But Adrian Bebb, GM campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said the Prince's comments were "spot on the ball because the existing legislation is inadequate".

He added: "Liability is a very unsure issue because we do not know the long term impact of GM on the environment. There are so many interests potentially at risk, including farmers, beekeepers and conservationists, that it would be very difficult to seek full legal redress."

Mr Bebb pointed out that a recent EU report had made it clear that coexistence of organic and conventional farming would be "economically unsustainable" for farmers. It warned that many farmers would be driven out of business by GM crops, which it said would cause the farm prices of conventional and organic crops to rise by up to 41 per cent.

With his Duchy Originals range of organic foods, the Prince has a vested interest in the GM debate and has been accused of being a stooge for the organic lobby.

• A report published by New Scientist today says the main benefit of GM claimed by the biotechnology industry - that it would help feed millions of people starving around the world - is not justified.

"Poor farmers who struggle to buy even conventional seeds are unlikely to be able to afford the prices charged by the big biotech companies. Nor will they be able to compete with those who can afford the seeds," it says.