- The controversy surrounding genetically
modified food continued yesterday when Monsanto, the US biotech company,
which is the world's biggest promoter of GM products, was fined £17,000
for "genetic pollution" and then immediately vowed to fight any
British moratorium on the growing of GM crops.
- In the first prosecution of its kind
in Britain, the Health and Safety Executive charged the company with failing
to prevent pollen from genetically modified crops from being released into
the environment at a trial site in Lincolnshire.
- Monsanto admitted the offence and was
also ordered by magistrates at Caistor, Lincolnshire, to pay £6,159
- Another company charged with a similar
offence at the same site, the seed producer Perryfields Holdings, was fined
£14,000 and ordered to pay costs of £5,000.
- The case was another setback for the
Government in its attempt to convince the public that genetically modified
food plants present no risk, in cultivation or consumption.
- The Food Safety minister, Jeff Rooker,
insisted after the hearing that there was a "robust" regulatory
system in place and that consumer protection was the Government's top priority,
but Friends of the Earth denounced Monsanto's fine as "pathetic,"
and William Hague, the Leader of the Opposition, said that a Conservative
peer would introduce a private member's Bill in the Lords to impose a three-year
GM crops moratorium.
- English Nature, the Government's wildlife
adviser, has called for such a delay before such crops are grown commercially
because of the dangers to wildlife of the new weedkillers developed to
go with them.
- Monsanto said it would resist any such
move, if necessary by appealing to the European Commission.
- The court heard that both Monsanto and
Perryfields were using the plot at Rothwell to test-grow varieties of oilseed
rape that had been genetically modified to be tolerant of particular weedkillers.
- A condition of their licences was to
keep a six-metre-wide pollen barrier of non-GM crops around the modified
crops, to prevent modified pollen mixing with normal plants in the area.
- But an HSE inspection found that the
pollen barrier had been cut back in some places to just two metres to put
in a roadway, and improve the look of the site.
- An HSE inspector, Andrew Tommey, also
found a gap had been created between the GM crops and the pollen-barrier
crops, creating what he described as a "wind tunnel", allowing
pollen to escape.
- Simon Parrington, for the prosecution,
said no one from either company bothered to visit the site to see if the
terms of their licences were being followed.
- "Neither company had taken sufficient
steps to make sure that the barriers were in place," he said.
- The companies said the pollen barrier
had been cut back by an employee of the firm hired to manage the site.
- Rhodri Price Lewis, for the defence of
both companies, told the court: "An employee who was not aware of
the consent regulations mowed and removed plants in order to make it easier
to get at the trial plants. This was not an act which was under the control
of these companies."
- A concern of ecologists is that pollen
from herbicide- tolerant crops might carry weedkiller resistance into nearby
wild plants, so producing "superweeds."
- But Dan Verakis of Monsanto said after
the hearing that the chance of GM pollen affecting other crops in the area