- Seed sown in GM trials over the past three years has
been contaminated with controversial antibiotic genes which went undetected
by government inspectors.
- Embarrassed officials admitted yesterday that there had
been a "serious breach" of regulations and that the seed company,
Aventis, was under investigation and could be prosecuted if found to have
broken licence conditions.
- Although company executives could face up to five years
in jail and unlimited fines, the government none the less has a PR disaster
on its hands.
- The joint statement by the Scottish Executive and the
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs admitted there had been
a complete failure of its regulatory system which failed to detect the
contaminated seed despite many "paper" inspections, meaning it
had simply accepted Aventis's word.
- The government said yesterday it was investigating its
own failures and may overhaul the entire regulatory system.
- It said the entire crop, which is about to be harvested,
would be destroyed, and that there was no danger to public health even
though the 2.6% of rogue genes found were antibiotics.
- Critics have repeatedly called for antibiotic genes to
be phased out amid evidence that GM plants and weeds of the same species
readily swap genes. This is a particular problem with oilseed rape, which
has relatives growing wild in hedgerows.
- Antibiotic genes are controversial because of the danger
of gene transfer to bacteria in animals and humans, who could then develop
immunity to common life-saving antibiotics.
- The government said Aventis, not its own inspectors,
had found the contamination and had notified authorities.
- It is unclear whether the contamination occurred from
accidental mixing of two types of seeds or cross-fertilisation of two different
- A Scottish Executive spokesman said: "Aventis has
been given very strong advice to make sure this doesn't happen again. And
we have called on the GM inspectorate to investigate and see if legal action
should be taken against the firm.
- "This is a very serious breach of regulations which
shows there could be problems with how Aventis puts together rape seed
for GM trials."
- No one at Aventis was available for comment yesterday.
- The contaminated fields are in Aberdeenshire, Gloucestershire,
Oxfordshire, Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Wiltshire, Warwickshire, and Worcestershire.
The seeds were also sown at three trial sites in England in 1999, and at
six in 2000.
- The find comes days after the government launched a "public
debate" on the future of GM crops in Britain as the three-year crop
trials draw to a close. The tests aimed to assess the impact of GM crops
on the countryside.
- The fact that contaminated seeds have grown undetected
throughout the trial will be hard for Margaret Beckett, the environment
secretary, to explain away as she tours the country this autumn.
- It also begs the question whether the last batch of oilseed
rape due to be planted this autumn to end the trials is also suspect. Aventis
has been asked to reassure the government before planting.
- Friends of the Earth called yesterday for an immediate
halt to the outdoor testing of GM crops. It said that before planting,
the government must carry out a full investigation and ensure there is
no repetition, guarantee that winter oilseed rape seed is not contaminated,
and publish results.
- Friends of the Earth's Adrian Bebb said: "This is
yet another biotech blunder from the GM industry. How can we trust them
to produce our food if they cannot even run a GM test site? It is clear
Aventis are incompetent and should not be allowed to experiment with our
countryside or our food anymore. It beggars belief that the government's
own inspectorate visited Aventis in April but did not uncover this contamination."
- Contrary to government comments, antibiotic-resistant
genes can provide immunity to the important antibiotic gentamicin, which
is used to treat life-threatening illnesses such as meningitis, he added.
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