GM Seed Contamination
And Spreading Out Of Control
By John Vidal and James Meikle,3604,265639,00.html
International seed suppliers and scientists last night admitted that contamination of crops by genetic modification was probably widespread, threatening to further undermine the government's claim that it is in control of the spread of the new technology.
French suppliers of seed for Britain's maize crop have said they cannot guarantee it is free of GM material, while US testers warned that much of the American conventional seed supply may have been contamination by GM pollen.
Greenpeace, the environmental campaigners, raised the stakes further by claiming that 5% to 15% of the European maize crop might be contaminated - an allegation denied by seed companies.
An article in today's New Scientist reports that low level contamination of seeds sold to Europe appears widespread. Pioneer Hi-Bred, the world's largest supplier of GM and conventional seeds, acknowledged that a low level of mingling between the types was "inevitable".
"In 1998 the UK imported 491,000 tonnes of soya beans from North America. If 1% was GM, roughly 5,000 tonnes of GM soya beans were imported", says New Scientist.
A spokesman for the Brussels-based European Seed Association said yesterday that there had been one or two incidents last year when conventional maize had been found to be contaminated with GM.
"Everyone knew about it", said a spokesman, Garlich von Essen."There was no legal provision for this so French growers guaranteed there was not more than 1%. The guarantee does not mean there is GM, but it guarantees there is not more than 1%." France supplies most of the UK's maize seeds, said Mr Essen. He denied Greenpeace's claim of up to 15% contamination.
US scientists added to the furore by saying there was "widespread" GM contamination of all conventional seeds. "It's across the board", said Cheryl Ryan of Genetic-ID, a private firm which screens agricultural produce for GM contamination.
"Some US companies have taken great strides to eliminate contamination. But up to 50% of the seeds we test can be contaminated", she said.
"The level of contamination can be up to 2%. "We've seen this level but we cannot say if they are samples from small seed producers or large."
Charlie Kronick, of Greenpeace, said: "The government should stop plotting with industry about how to allow contamination and instead act to eliminate the pollution."
The deputy prime minister John Prescott told the Commons there was no evidence that Britain had suffered from any imports of contaminated seed after last week's revelation that thousands of acres of oilseed rape containing GM material had been unwittingly planted by UK farmers.
But last night the Ministry of Agriculture could not say how much seed Britain imported to grow its 11.6m acres of crops, or name the major sources of supply, except for maize grown on about 110,000 acres for animal feed or sweetcorn. This came mainly from France, the US and Spain.
Since there is as yet no testing in Britain, no one knows the extent of the problem. The ministry's central science laboratory in York will start random sampling on June 1.
Mr Prescott said yesterday the government had responded as quickly as possible to the oilseed rape "mix-up". He told Tory backbencher Robert Syms, he had "no evidence and no information" about other crops "and you can be assured that if we do have some information, we shall certainly be telling the house about it".
The Tory agriculture spokesman Tim Yeo said he was "deeply concerned" by the revelations and demanded quick answers from the agriculture minister Nick Brown.
"A delay of the sort which followed the German warning about oilseed rape communicated to the British government on April 17 will mean confidence in Labour's handling of GM issues is destroyed."
The Ministry of Agriculture insisted the measures the government was taking , including trials of "real" GM crops before they can be sold , were strong compared to other countries but admitted "from time to time GM seed might be found in conventional seed".
"We are seeking concerted international action to have new standards for seed purity."
The latest problems for the government follow disclosures that the European Seed Association had this week faxed letters to EU governments stepping up the pressure for international rules that would allow for the accidental cross-contamination of seeds by up to 1%, the same percentage of GM material that is allowed in foods before they have to be declared as containing GM ingredients. At present, there are no regulations.


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