Threat to wildlife enough to ban GM crops, MEPs told (3/10/2003)

Paul Brown, environment correspondent
The Guardian, Friday October 3, 2003

A threat to British wildlife from GM crops would be sufficient grounds for the UK government to ban the growing of such crops, the European health commissioner said yesterday, after the Guardian's report on field trials of the crops.

David Byrne was asked by MEPs on the European parliament's environment committee whether a threat to biodiversity would allow Britain to ban GM crops unilaterally. He said it would but he had not seen the results of the three years of trials reported in the Guardian yesterday. 

Scientists are set to recommend to the government on October 16 that GM sugar beet and oilseed rape are not grown in Britain because insects and weeds are fewer in GM fields, further damaging Britain's depleted wildlife. 

Speaking after the meeting in Brussels, Caroline Lucas, the Green MEP for south-east England said: "The commission is clearly beginning to accept that GM is a social and political issue - not simply an economic one. 

"In the face of mounting public opposition, and growing scientific evidence of the dangers posed by GM, the commission is reluctantly accepting that it must allow member states to reject GM crops." 

Michael Meacher, the former environment minister who set up the trials while in government said: "It would be really unthinkable for the Labour government to give the go-ahead to these crops at this time. They do not have to say no forever but they can say not yet, not until a lot more work has been done." 

The Liberal Democrat rural affairs spokesman, Andrew George, said: "If these leaks are proved accurate then the government will have to face up to decisions they may not have anticipated." 

The director of Friends of the Earth, Tony Juniper, said: "This must surely be the death blow for commercial GM crops in the UK. GM crops are unpopular, unnecessary and pose threats to our food, farming and environment." 

It emerged yesterday that there may be a question mark over the test results for a third crop involved in the trials, forage maize, which appeared to do well in allowing biodiversity compared with conventional farming.

Maize fields are normally sprayed with atrazine, a powerful weedkiller. GM crops treated with the less strong glufosinate ammonium did better in wildlife tests. But atrazine has been banned as too dangerous for use on maize crops, so conventional farmers will have to find a more benign weedkiller. This could spark a call for the trials to be done again using a herbicide currently permitted for use on conventional maize.

The Royal Society criticised the Guardian report. Stephen Cox, the society's executive secretary, said: "Last week's report on the GM public debate stressed that the public wants confidence in the independence and integrity of information about GM, the assurance that it does not reflect the influence of any group with a special interest for or against GM. 

"We believe that the information in this speculative article, which the Guardian describes as a serious setback to the GM lobby, flies in the face of this plea from the public."

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