Friends of the Earth (FOE) Press Release
9th August 1999


STOP THE TRIALS! Farm-Scale GM Tests A "Scientific Farce"

Farm-scale trials of genetically-modified (GM) crops are "a scientific farce", a new analysis by Friends of the Earth concludes today. FOE says that the trials are "creeping commercialisation" and that in themselves they pose an environmental threat. The news undermines the Government's claim that the trials must continue to inform political decisions about the future of GM products. FOE also believes that key Ministers are determined to allow the first widespread commercial growing of GM crops from next spring. Three quarters of the existing trials are being grown on a commercial license.

At the start of the year, there were seven planned farm-scale trials for the summer. An announcement for winter oilseed rape sites is expected shortly. These are in addition to the 140 smaller trials already in operation. The cost of the farm-scale trials is over 3 million, funded by the tax-payer. One trial was aborted when the farmer concerned was instructed to end it by his trustees. Two trial sites have been extensively damaged by direct action protests.

"Creeping Commercialisation"

1. The Government is likely to allow the maize being trialed to be sold commercially to farmers from next spring. The seeds could be placed on the National Seed List by February next year.

2. The GM maize on trial already has commercial marketing consent from the European Union. Although the Government has an unwritten agreement with industry that these crops will not go into the food chain this year, the crops could enter the food chain in future years.

3. The trials are part of the "managed development" of GM crops. AgrEvo has been given consent for a massive increase in oilseed rape trials, from 1,250 acres now to 12,500 acres by 2000. The Government and its officials have refused to rule out other large-scale plantings during the trials.

Environmental Hazard

4. The trials have not been designed to prevent pollen escaping from the crop, or to study pollen movement. It is likely that cross-pollination of nearby crops or wild plants will occur. Any nearby beekeepers may also find their honey contaminated with GM pollen. A recent report for the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food, from the biotech research body the John Innes Centre, stated that cross pollination of crops would be "inevitable" and that the separation distances set out in industry guidelines would not prevent this.

5. Small-scale trials have only concentrated on the agronomic performance of GM crops - including yield and commercial value - rather than environmental effects. There has been no evaluation of properly designed small-scale trials.

6. Farm scale trials have not been inspected by the HSE.

7. The Government has no clear policy on how to respond to any evidence of environmental damage that may occur. A leaked memo from the Cabinet Office, previously published by FOE, asked "What if environmental damage is shown to occur, how much can we tolerate as a justifiable cost? Or do we believe that any damage should justify a halt? (The latter is unlikely to be true, but will be difficult in presentational terms.)"

8. The trials are being governed by voluntary guidelines written up by the industry itself. Former Agriculture Minister Jeff Rooker stated that there was no parliamentary time to make these guidelines mandatory.

Scientific Farce

9. Basic research into what wildlife exists on farmland before GM crops are trialed has not been done. A report by the Government's Pesticide Safety Directorate last year pointed out that very little is known about wildlife in intensively run farms.

10. Key research which should form the basis for any farm-scale trials is not yet complete. A MAFF funded project (BRIGHT) to examine impacts on botanical diversity and to "provide farmers with practical guidance on the appropriate management of herbicide tolerant crops" only started in April 1999 and will not be finished until 2003.

11. The trials may not show much about the impact of growing herbicide resistant crops. Without the relevant research into agricultural ecology, it is likely that only gross differences between GM and non GM crops will be detected. Subtle changes, which could have important long term impacts, may be missed.

12. It remains unclear what role the biotech giant AgrEvo, which supplies the GM seed and chemicals, have to play. FOE have written to Michael Meacher asking for the contracts to be made public. It is possible that AgrEvo may control when spraying takes place - and therefore the effects on biodiversity - thus making a mockery of the trials.

Policy Chaos

13. The question of who would be liable for damage caused by growing GM crops has not been answered. Legally responsibility for any damage caused to the environment or the livelihoods of nearby food producers should be established before these trials go ahead.

14. The trials are funded by the taxpayer for over 3 million and not the biotech industry who stand to make millions out of the seed and chemical sales.

15. There is no demand for GM produce in the UK. Most major retailers and food manufacturers have now removed GM ingredients from their products.

16. The trials are looking at whether there is a difference in wildlife between GM crops and conventional intensive crops - the so called "null hypothesis". Conventional farming is known to seriously damage wildlife. Tests should be looking at all farming options to see which one is best for the environment, rural economies and the production of safe food.

Commenting, FOE Food Campaigner Adrian Bebb said:

"These trials are a farce. They will produce little or no useful scientific evidence on the environmental effects of GM crops. They are an environmental hazard in themselves. They are part of the process of creeping commercialisation, by which GM crops could be brought to the marketplace behind the backs of an unwilling public. Only if there is a moratorium on commercial growing will there be time for a proper public debate on the future of farming and the countryside."

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