GM firms seeking crop trial secrecy (16/2/2008)

First 5 items from today's Guardian

1.GM crop trial locations may be hidden

2.Biotech firm mans barricades

3.Key players

4.Timeline: GM crops

5.Q&A: GM crops

6.GM firms seeking crop trial secrecy - Press Association


1.GM crop trial locations may be hidden from public
Government plans clampdown on vandalism after lobbying from biotech firms
Ian Sample, science correspondent
The Guardian, February 16 2008

Genetically modified crops may be grown in hidden locations in Britain amid fears that anti-GM campaigners are winning the battle over the controversial technology, the Guardian has learned.

Officials at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) confirmed they are looking at a range of options to clamp down on vandalism to GM crop trials, after intense lobbying by big crop biotech companies. The firms have warned that trials of GM crops are becoming too expensive to conduct in Britain because of the additional costs of protecting fields from activists.

This week, a report from the GM industry claimed that worldwide agricultural use of genetically modified crops had increased 70-fold in the last 10 years to 114m hectares in 2007.

But fears of vandalism have forced many companies to shift their crop trials abroad. Last year, only one trial went ahead in Britain, a blight-resistant GM potato developed by the German company BASF. Two activists were arrested for damage to the trial site, which was later almost completely destroyed in a night raid.

BASF plans to repeat the trial this year, at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany in Cambridgeshire. Another trial is planned by scientists at Leeds University.

A group representing the major biotech companies has asked the government to oversee specific changes to the GM trial process that would make fields of crops harder for activists to locate. Under existing laws, full details of every GM crop trial must be disclosed in advance on a government website, with a six-figure grid reference identifying the precise location of the field.

The group has asked Defra to keep details of locations on a register, which would only be shared with people who apply and who can prove they have good reason to know. Another option is to release only a four-figure reference for the trial site.

'These trials are legal, so why give carte blanche to anyone who wants to destroy them? In most countries, there is nothing like the sort of specific information that has to be given in Britain,' said Julian Little of the industry group, the Agricultural Biotechnology Council. The need to give the location of a GM crop is contained in a European directive, but it is interpreted differently across member states.

The GM companies are also keen to see stiffer penalties for activists caught damaging crop trials.

'We have to sort out the framework under which we're allowed to do trials. If Britain is to benefit from GM technology, we have to have crop trials in Britain. There's no use second-guessing how a crop will fare here from what has been done elsewhere,' Little said. 'We have to start looking at how to produce a large amount of food on a small amount of land with a minimal environmental footprint and for that you need new technology.'

Some GM companies fear future crop trials are in greater danger because of what they claim is a 'broadening out' of anti-GM activists to include anti-globalisation and possibly animal rights campaigners. British anti-GM activists have also developed links with European groups that hold training camps to share tactics, such as crossing police lines and gaining access to fields. In France and Germany, crop trashings have increased substantially as farmers have taken to growing GM crops.

Defra officials said making it harder to identify trial sites was not a straightforward process.

Only one GM crop is approved for cultivation in Europe, an insect-resistant maize, which is grown on about 110,000 hectares in member states. It is not grown in Britain because the corn pest it protects against is not found in this country. A second crop, a potato, is in the final stages of approval in Brussels, but it would only be used to produce starch for the paper industry and would probably be grown in Germany and the Czech Republic.


2.Biotech firm mans barricades as campaigners vow to stop trials
Small field near Cambridge the latest battleground in fight to prevent GM trials
Ian Sample, science correspondent The Guardian, February 16 2008

On the outskirts of Cambridge, a field little bigger than a football pitch is about to become the latest GM battleground. On one side is a multinational company, intent on planting a test crop of genetically modified potatoes. On the other, a group of anti-GM campaigners that has vowed to do its best to prevent the trial.

The company behind the trial, BASF, will begin planting the potatoes in the next month or two. And in preparation for the activists' arrival, they are reviewing all the usual deterrents. The local constabulary has been alerted, a court injunction might be drawn up, and hundreds of metal fences are waiting to be locked together, to make a protective shield around the field.

Not that the measures are expected to do much good, of course. Last year, the company attempted an identical trial, and despite a security fence, round-the-clock guards and a court injunction, the plants were ripped up in an overnight raid. A week before, the police arrested two activists for damaging the site at the National Institute for Agricultural Botany, an organisation whose business is to conduct field trials of all kinds of crops. One protester had climbed on the security fence, which collapsed under his weight. The activists have sworn to return this year to pull up any freshly-planted crops they can.

So far, it could easily be a re-run of the anti-GM protests of the late 1990s. But a Guardian investigation has found that the battle over GM Britain is set to intensify. Buoyed by a surge in GM crop growing around the world, biotech companies are lobbying governments hard for help in breaking down the last bastions of resistance, here and elsewhere. Meanwhile, British anti-GM activists have grown stronger, linking up with groups in Europe, and even joining in 'field liberation camps' on the continent to train and discuss their strategies.

This week, a report from the GM industry claimed that GM crops worldwide have soared almost 70-fold in the past 10 years, to 114m hectares, an area predicted to double by 2015. Greenpeace said the report, from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, was 'propaganda' and 'littered with false claims and manipulated statistics'. The campaign group counters that of the 1.5bn hectares of arable land on the planet, more than 92% is cultivated without GM crops, and more than 99% of farmers do not resort to GM crops.

Within industry, some believe the anti-GM campaign is becoming a different beast from the one they faced at the beginning of the GM wars. Then it was the likes of the former Labour minister, Lord Melchett, who in 1999 led Greenpeace activists onto Walnut Farm in Norfolk and used lawn mowers to shred crops while farmers fought back, turning their tractors into battering rams. Now, they say, there are hints that the anti-GM movement is swelling to embrace anti-globalisation activists more familiar with the World Economic Forum in Davos, and perhaps animal rights activists, who have seen laws around anti-vivisection protests tightened in the past two years. 'We're getting more activists, and the activists seem to be broadening out,' said Chris Wilson of BASF.

The GM crop trial at Cambridge is one of only two expected to go ahead in Britain this year. The other, a nematode-resistant potato developed by Leeds University, uses a synthetic gene for the first time. Both crops could improve farmers' yields substantially, and reduce the amount of pest repellent or insecticide they needed to spray. The BASF potato contains a gene taken from a wild relative that makes it resilient to potato blight, the fungus that devastated Ireland's potato crop in the 1840s and continues to cost British farmers £50m a year. The Leeds University potato produces an antibiotic to combat nematode worms that cause an estimated £43m damage a year in the UK.

In a parting shot late last year, Sir David King, the government's former chief science adviser, put the cost of Britain's failure to embrace GM crops at £4bn.

Biotech companies claim the financial benefit of GM crops is often even greater outside the UK, and is behind many countries choosing to adopt the technology. Globally, the amount of land given over to GM crops increases by an area equivalent to nearly half the size of Britain every year. To strengthen their cause, multinationals such as Monsanto, Bayer CropScience and Syngenta argue that GM technology is at least part of the solution to problems of food inflation, food security and even global warming.

'There's a clear recognition around the world that GM is doing the job,' said Julian Little of the agricultural biotechnology council, a GM industry group.

Though biotech companies can point to successes, Europe has become a serious headache. Across the EU, more than 110,000 hectares of GM crops were grown last year, a 77% increase on the year before. But so far, only one crop has been approved in 10 years, an insect-resistant maize developed by Monsanto, and most of it is grown in Spain. Enthusiasm for the crops varies enormously, from a Slovakian zeal that saw GM crop farming rise 2,900% last year, albeit from a small base, to Britain and other countries which have so far proved impenetrable.

This year, Europe will begin to feel punitive measures from the US, Canada and Argentina after falling foul of World Trade Organisation rules when some member states banned GM unilaterally. Last month, a scientific panel convened by the French government ruled there were serious doubts over Monsanto's GM maize crop, allowing President Nicolas Sarkozy to invoke a safeguard clause and join them. The move followed a hunger strike by the veteran activist and moustachioed farmers' leader José Bové, protesting against more than 21,000 hectares of GM crops planted commercially in France last year. Further fines are due in protest against hold-ups in Brussels, where more than 40 crops are stuck in a backlog of bureaucracy, awaiting to be approved.

Political blocks are only part of the problem though. The picture from Europe is that the growth of GM is being matched by rising activism, and previously isolated groups have begun linking across borders and into Britain to form a united front. In France and Germany last year, GM crop planting rose 323% and 183% respectively, but both countries witnessed their largest rise in activism too.

In France, the number of crop trials owned by Monsanto that were attacked last year reached 65%, up from 45% in 2004. There, clashes over GM became a running disaster last year. In August, activists ripped up crops in one field, costing Monsanto an estimated €100,000. Later the same month, gendarmes used tear gas and batons to keep pro-GM farmers away from a picnic being held by anti-GM campaigners in the town of Verdun-sur-Garonne in south-west France. The campaigners, led by Bové, claim a citizen's right to destroy GM crops, which they believe are an environmental hazard and threaten to leave farmers reliant on the whims of a few multinational companies. Tensions had reached a new high after one farmer, who had agreed to grow a small plot of GM maize, committed suicide a few days after being warned that anti-GM activists planned to occupy his fields. The situation, according to Nathalie Moll of the biotech organisation, EuropaBio, has become a 'witch hunt.'

In Germany, attacks have also risen steadily. The country's main anti-GM group, Gendreck Weg! - Off with genetic dregs! - claims responsibility for around 30 attacks last year, up from six in 2004.

Michael Grolm, a co-founder of Gendreck Weg!, says the group's aim for the past four years has been to unite GM activists across Europe. They have developed strong links to Bové's organisation in France, and to others in Britain, Poland and Hungary and elsewhere. Grolm makes a living from beekeeping and sees GM crops as a direct threat to his livelihood. 'If my honey is contaminated with GM, no one will buy it. I won't be able to live from it,' he said.

The organisation has started a campaign that centres around one spectacular public crop trashing a year. In the days beforehand, they hold a 'field liberation camp' and invite activists from all over Europe to share experiences and discuss tactics.

Afterwards, anyone who wants to can join the trashing, which is tracked by the organisations own lawyers. 'We show films, we cook organic food and we have special training to get on to the fields without fighting the police,' said Grolm.

Jürgen Binder, another co-founder, is one of around 70 Gendreck Weg! protesters that have been arrested for the organisation's activities. He is facing 90 years in prison for calling for civil disobedience. 'If I go to prison, then I go to prison. Of course, we will have our demonstration in front, we have our message to get across,' he said.

Invites for this year's camp - tentatively planned for July and probably in southern Germany - will be going out shortly, via regional contacts in each country. In Britain, the task of herding activists along to the camp is down to Gerald Miles, a pig farmer from Mathry in Pembrokeshire, who founded GM Free Cymru and five years ago spent a week driving to London on his tractor to take part in an anti-GM protest. 'There is a movement now. We've all got similar actions and campaigns going on and we can help each other out. The UK has been at the forefront of this, so Europe has been looking to the UK as experienced campaigners,' he said. 'More and more of us see this as a European issue and creating a GM free Europe is our main goal. We are a network now, we work together.'

In Britain, the strength of opposition has left multinationals exasperated at what they feel is a gift to the activists. For every crop trial they plan, they must publish a six-figure grid reference that clearly identifies the location of the field. 'In the UK, transparency of locations is a real problem. Many farmers are not growing GM because they're afraid people will come and trash their fields,' said Moll.

Last year, BASF planned to conduct its GM potato trial at two sites, the second being a farm in Derbyshire. The trial was scrapped after the field location was made public and the farmer pulled out. The company attempted to shift the trial to Yorkshire, but cancelled again after neighbouring farmers raised concerns it might contaminate their borage crops, a plant used to produce starflower oil for the health food supplements.

The obligation to give crop locations is enshrined in a European directive, which industry groups claim was introduced in the most draconian way possible by Michael Meacher, Tony Blair's anti-GM former environment minister. Elsewhere in Europe, fields are not pinpointed so clearly, with companies giving only the region in which a trial will take place, or submitting the details to a tightly-controlled public register.

Here, industry groups have asked government to do more to help protect their crop trials. They favour a public register of trials, but want the information on it released only to people who can prove they have a legitimate interest, such as neighbouring organic farmers. It would not stop the attacks, but it might reduce them by effectively hiding the fields, the companies believe.

'We've been very clear to government. We have to find a way of reducing the amount of damage you get when you do a field trial in the UK, that's absolutely imperative. Our view is we need greater security, or we need to reduce the visibility of the trials. Second, when people are caught causing illegal damage to crops, they need to face the full power of the law,' said Little.

Environment officials confirm they are considering a broad range of options to reduce the risk of crop trashing, but add that making fields harder to find is not straightforward, because of the strict guidelines laid down in the EU directive.

At BASF, Chris Wilson said the company was looking forward to getting this year's trial underway. What results they got from last year's trial were encouraging, he said. 'After the experience of last year, we do have to think about how to protect the site and what we can do differently, but 24 hour guards and fences cost a lot of money,' he said.

One activist, Martin Shaw, who was charged with causing damage to the fence surrounding BASF's trial last year said the protests would continue as long as there were trials. 'Personally, I intend to pull up as many crops this year as I can,' he said.


3.Key players
The Guardian, February 16 2008

Hilary Benn

The environment minister says his approach is guided by scientific evidence. He believes there is no suggestion that GM crops are unsafe to eat, but adds it will be some years before they are grown in Britain.

Robert Watson

The government's chief environment scientist believes GM crops have potential in Britain, but says there are safety questions over the spread of genes from modified crops.

Julian Little

The chairman of the industry's Agricultural Biotechnology Council claims GM crops are the most rigorously tested of all and sees them as crucial for meeting rising food demand. Says the benefits include better yields, reduced costs and less environmental damage.

Jürgen Binder

A professional bee-keeper and co-founder of the German anti-GM group Gendreck Weg, he has been charged with calling for civil disobedience after inviting others to join him in cutting down GM crops.


4.Timeline: GM crops
The Guardian, February 16 2008


Scientists create genetically modified tobacco resistant to an antibiotic


First GM crop trials begin around the world, including the UK


Phrase 'Frankenfood' coined by Paul Lewis, a US college professor


US Food and Drug Administration allows companies to market GM seed


The first GM food, the Flavr Savr tomato, is approved in the US


GM tomato paste arrives in Britain, prompting backlash from Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth


Herbicide-tolerant GM soya bean available in US


Arpad Pusztai claims on TV that GM potatoes harm rats


Britain's field scale trials of herbicide-resistant GM crops begin


Downing Street confirms that Tony Blair has eaten GM food and regards it as safe


Farm scale trials show herbicides used with some GM crops can reduce weeds and seeds eaten by wildlife


GM maize is approved for planting in Britain


German biotech firm BASF gets permission for five-year trial of blight-resistant GM potatoes in Britain


Government backs industry call to bring GM to Britain


5.Q&A: GM crops

What are genetically modified crops, and should we be concerned about them?
David Adam explains
The Guardian, February 16 2008

What are genetically modified crops?

GM crops come in two main types. The first are given a gene that enables them to tolerate herbicides that wipe out all other plants, which allows farmers can spray their crop with a 'broad-spectrum' herbicide. The second type are given a gene that lets the plant produce a toxin that kills pests that would usually feed on it, making the GM plant resistant.

Who makes them?

Monsanto produces more than 90% of GM crops worldwide. Companies such as Syngenta, Bayer Cropscience, Dow and BASF make the rest.

How do they do it?

One technique uses a natural soil bacterium called agrobacteria tumefaciens, which naturally infect plants and place some of their own DNA into the plant's genes. Scientists replace these genes with those carrying the useful GM trait, and use them to transform plant cells.

Another method is a gene gun, which fires tiny gold particles coated with genes directly into a plant's cells. Both techniques have a high failure rate, so thousands of attempts are needed.

What crops are grown?

The four main commercial crops grown are soya beans, maize, cotton and oilseed rape. Companies are also looking to develop GM versions of other crops, including rice.

Are they grown in the UK?

There are no GM crops grown commercially in Britain, though there are no legal reasons why companies couldn't apply for the relevant licenses to do so in future. Then it would be up to farmers and whether they believe there would be a demand.

What about experimental trials?

There have been hundreds of small scale outdoor trials of various GM crops, including the government's farm scale evaluations earlier this decade. At the moment, only the company BASF is actively growing GM crops outdoors, a trial of blight-resistant potatoes in Cambridge.

Where are they grown in the world?

GM crops are grown by more than 10m farmers on 252m acres in 22 countries. Spain is the biggest grower in Europe, but there are also significant amounts of crops grown in France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Portugal. Around the world, the US, Argentina, Canada and Brazil plant the most, with various amounts grown in China, Australia, Bulgaria, Colombia, Honduras, India, Mexico, South Africa and Uruguay.

Are we eating GM in the UK?

Very few GM products are on sale in Britain. Most supermarkets and food companies have imposed bans on imported GM ingredients such as soya and rape seed oil in processed food, though small quantities may slip in because of contamination earlier in the manufacturing process. There are a handful of clearly labelled GM-containing foods on the shelves, such as bacon flavoured soya chunks. Many dairy products, eggs and meat could have come from animals fed imported GM crops, but they are not considered to be GM produce.

Why the controversy?

Some people object to GM technology because it can be used to create unnatural organisms. For example, a plant can be modified with genes from another species of plant, or even an animal. Another concern is that genes used to modify crops could escape into wild plants, creating 'superweeds' that are highly resistant to pests, or alter plants in other ways that might cause damage to the environment. Some worry that GM crops themselves might prove to be harmful to either wildlife or the people who eat the crops. There are also concerns about the accidental contamination of organic produce, which markets itself as GM-free.

What about the advantages?

The companies argue that GM crops can reduce weedkiller use, and improve yields by offering useful resistance to pests and poor growing conditions caused by drought or salinity.

What about their impact on the developing world?

The companies point out there has been a large take-up of GM crops in poorer countries, and regularly claim that GM crops address many of the problems that blight farmers there. Anti-GM campaigners point out that most GM crops are grown for animal food, and massive amounts grown in countries such as Argentina are exported, sometimes at the expense of local food production. They also worry about the control of seeds and agricultural techniques by a handful of multinational companies.

What other types of GM crops are there?

The next generation of GM crops produce drugs and vaccines, called pharming. GM tobacco plants, for example, can churn out a topical medicine against HIV infection. Advocates say the use of plants opens up cheap routes to new medicines. Critics worry about their use of food crops because it might lead to contamination of food supplies.



6.GM firms seeking crop trial secrecy

Press Association, 16 Feb 2008


Biotechnology firms are lobbying the Government to promise greater secrecy for future genetically-modified crop trials, it has emerged.

They are concerned about the cost of the damage likely to be caused by anti-GM activists if the precise locations of fields hosting experiments continue to be made public.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said it was concerned by the threat to 'legitimate research' and was considering options to reduce the risk of GM crops being vandalised.

Under European law the location of GM crops must be published, but biotech firms want Defra to hold the information on a restricted register or release less specific details, the Guardian newspaper reported.

Julian Little, of GM industry group the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, told the paper: 'We've been very clear to Government.

'We have to find a way of reducing the amount of damage you get when you do a field trial in the UK, that's absolutely imperative.

'Our view is we need greater security, or we need to reduce the visibility of the trials.'

A Defra spokeswoman said: 'We are considering options that would reduce the risk of crops being vandalised. However, at present there are no specific plans to change Government policy in this area.'

A report published this week showed the global use of GM crops increased by 12% last year to reach 114 million hectares across 23 countries.

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