GM seed contamination "may affect more crops"

UK assessment suggests maize, soya, seed imports could be affected as well as oilseed rape

The UK government has concluded that not only oilseed rape but also maize and soya seedstock imported for cultivation could be contaminated by genetically modified (GM) material, according to a paper released by the agriculture ministry yesterday. Nine countries are identified as being potential sources of GM contamination due to the presence of commercial GM crop growing: the USA, Argentina, Canada, Australia, South Africa, Spain, France, Portugal and Romania.

A Europe-wide alert was sounded last month when it emerged publicly that oilseed rape seeds imported from Canada and sown in six European countries was contaminated at levels below 1% with GM material (ENDS Daily 19 May). Three governments have now instructed affected farmers to pull up contaminated crops (ENDS Daily 25 May) (ENDS Daily 29 May). The European Commission revealed today that farmers could still receive agricultural subsidies payable on the particular variety of oilseed rape even if they destroyed crops rather than marketing them.

In its assessment of the risks of imported seeds being GM-contaminated, the UK agriculture ministry points out that though seeds are mainly imported from a restricted group of countries, some could have originated in other states where similar GM crop varieties are cultivated, raising the risk of contamination through cross-pollination.

In a related development, the UK government has launched a review of separation distances for GM crops. Guidelines were proposed by an industry body in May 1999, including a 200 metre minimum for oilseed rape. However, the contaminated oilseed rape seedstock imported from Canada was at least 800 metres from the nearest similar GM variety, raising severe questions over the current limits.

Follow Up:
UK agriculture ministry, tel: +44 20 72 38 30 00. (The report is due to be posted on the website). See also a European Commission press release.

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