Britain suffers genetics panic attack

GM crops, food, safety fears thrust into the political spotlight, ban calls renewed

The UK is to broaden the range of issues it takes into account when scrutinising applications to commercialise genetically modified (GM) crops, environment minister Michael Meacher announced today. Henceforth, government advisors will look not only at safety issues relating to specific crops but also at the broader agronomic and biodiversity implications of introducing all kinds of GM crops, the minister said.

The change in UK practice anticipates a proposal being discussed at EU level. This would introduce to the revised 1990 "deliberate release" directive a requirement for there to be assessment of cumulative effects of release authorisations as well as likely impacts of using GM crops on agricultural practice (ENDS Daily 11 November 1998). Up to now, though, GM regulation everywhere in the EU has focused almost entirely on a case-by-case risk assessment of single species.

Today's move continues a trend launched last year, when the UK government extended the remit of the advisory committee on releases to the environment (Acre) to address long-term and cumulative impacts. Both developments follow complaints from a wide range of organisations that broader scientific implications of introducing GM crops were not being properly addressed under current regulatory systems (ENDS Daily 25 March 1998).

Alongside its announcement, the government also released today what it called a "discussion paper" on the potential wider impact on farmland wildlife of commercial use of GM crops. The paper explicitly advocates linking GM crop regulation with broader efforts to conserve wildlife in the context of government commitments to reverse already ongoing "serious declines". It does not suggest that widespread GM crop use is likely in principle either to accelerate or arrest the trend.

Nevertheless, the paper does back the strategy of caution introduced by the government last year, when it announced a voluntary agreement with the biotechnology industry that GM crop commercialisation would not begin in the UK until at least spring 2000 and would be preceded by farm-scale field trials (ENDS Daily 21 October 1998).

Following the recent public furore over GM technologies in agriculture, Mr Meacher has been under pressure to extend the "breathing space" into a "moratorium" lasting three or more years. He did not do so today, but stressed that the government would not allow commercialisation without sufficient evidence of safety from the large-scale trials due to begin this year. Were this not to emerge immediately, then the government would ask the biotechnology industry to reschedule, he said. "I think they would understand and cooperate," he added.Follow Up:
UK environment ministry, tel: +44 171 890 3000. References: "The commercial use of genetically modified crops in the UK: the wider impact on farmland wildlife" is to be posted on the web pages of the advisory committee Acre.

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