- Controls to protect crops from cross-pollination
by genetically-modified (GM) plants may be seriously inadequate, new research
- Dr Jean Emberlin, Director of the National
Pollen Research Unit, has produced evidence to show that pollen from maize
can be dispersed over much greater distances than has been accepted by
- At present, a 200-metre "exclusion
zone" is set up around a GM maize crop undergoing trials and is considered
a sufficient barrier to prevent cross-contamination of ordinary maize crops
or sweet corn. But, Dr Emberlin, whose research was commissioned by the
Soil Association, says bees or strong winds will take the pollen much further.
- She believes the government should now
stop the controversial large-scale cultivation of GM crops, which is planned
to start in a matter of weeks.
- Environment Minister Michael Meacher
told BBC Radio that he accepted there could be a contamination risk of
around 1% at 200m under moderate speed wind conditions. But he said the
200-barrier should be sufficient to ensure the purity of nearby crops.
- It was based on many years of research
and recognised as adequate by the European Commission, the Origination
for Economic Co-operation and Development, and the US authorities.
- "If it is necessary and right to
revise the criteria by which we assess the likelihood of cross-pollination,
we will do so," he said.
- Once again, he stressed the government's
line on GM crops: "We are not going to allow commercial planting of
GM crops until we are sure that we have the evidence to guarantee that
there will be no damage to the environment - or indeed to human health."
- Political pressure
- Concerns over genetically-modified food
in the last month have put the government under pressure to halt development
until further tests are carried out.
- The Soil Association, which promotes
organic food and is opposed to genetic engineering, asked Dr Emberlin to
undertake this latest research after the government's refusal last summer
to order the destruction of a GM maize crop bordering an organic farm in
- The government's Advisory Committee on
Releases to the Environment (Acre) maintained there was little or no risk
- But Craig Samms, of the Soil Association,
says the new report does indicate a real risk to farmers growing GM free
crops as well as the consumers who believe they are buying organic produce.
- "Nobody knows what the risk is to
people because this technology has been introduced without any of the normal
checks you would expect.
- "Genetic engineering in medicine
is subjected to strict containment rules," Mr Samms added, "But
here you have a technology that is just being planted in the countryside
with no real idea of what the implications are".
- "The lack of acknowledgement of
potential pollen spread concerns me," Dr Emberlin said.
- "Once the pollen is out there it
is very difficult to redress the situation. I don't think it would be wise
to go ahead with large-scale planting of GM crops without knowing more
about the possible repercussions."
- A statement from the Department of Environment
released before Mr Meacher's radio interview rejected as "disingenuous"
the suggestion that bees are a major factor in maize pollination in the
- "The issue of bees carrying maize
pollen is a smokescreen to cast doubt on the competence and quality of
Acre's advice," the statement read.
- Liberal Democrat food spokesman Paul
Tyler and environment spokesman Norman Baker welcomed the report.
- "This report gives the lie to the
dismissive attitude of both Conservative and Labour ministers. It is now
clear that the risk is far greater than they have told us," they said
in a joint statement.
- Pete Riley, senior food campaigner at
Friends of the Earth, said: "This new report highlights once again
the appalling advice that the government has received on GM crops."
- The report is published two weeks after
a US biotechnology company, Monsanto, was fined £17,000 for breaking
GM crop test site safety rules. The firm failed to maintain a six metre-wide
barrier around a plot of genetically-modified oil seed rape in Lincolnshire.