GM crops back in the UK spotlight

Biotechnology firm criticised on first day of public hearings over seed listing application

A new row over genetically modified (GM) crops has broken out in the UK, following the launch yesterday of public hearings into whether a GM maize variety should be placed on the national seeds list. Environmental groups are hoping to turn the hearings into a public trial of GM technology and argue that it is not needed in British agriculture.

Seeds listing is an EU legal requirement before any new crop variety can be commercialised. To pass, new varieties must be shown to be uniform, stable and distinct from others already on a national list. They must also be shown to have value for cultivation and use. GM seed cannot reach this stage of the approvals process unless genetic constructs they contain have already been cleared under the EU's "deliberate release" directive.

The British public hearings concern a maize variety called Chardon LL developed by biotechnology firm Aventis. It is the first GM variety to be put forward to join the national seeds list. A little known legal right under UK law for any group to demand a public hearing before a new crop variety is approved was discovered and exercised by environmental group Friends of the Earth.

In a statement released yesterday, Aventis reaffirmed its commitment to an industry agreement not to commercialise GM seeds before completion of government trials (ENDS Daily 5 November 1999). However, the company's refusal yesterday to supply expert witnesses for cross examination, in contrast with the NGOs, has turned into something of a press relations disaster and brought glee to the anti-GM camp. The independent barrister chairing yesterday's hearing warned Aventis's counsel that the company's stance was "calculated to be unhelpful".

Follow Up:
UK agriculture ministry, tel: +44 20 72 38 30 00, also press release; Friends of the Earth, tel: +44 207 74 90 15 55; Aventis, tel: +44 1277 30 15 08.

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