April 15, 2004

Bayer, Novartis: Despairing GM firms halt crop trials

All the major biotechnology companies have abandoned GM trials in the UK this year and only one crop - a GM pea - has been granted a licence to be planted this summer. The lack of applications, which peaked at 159 in 2000-01, shows a dramatic change in the fortunes of a technology which had the backing of the government but remains unpopular with the public.

Although the figures of field trials were inflated by the bio-tech companies' three-year trials of oilseed rape, sugar beet and maize, the slump to 140 in 2001-02, 42 last year and only one trial this year is a remarkable decline for what the government claims is a sunrise industry. The one crop that will be grown this year is a herbicide-resistant pea being tested for drought resistance in polytunnels at the John Innes research centre, Norwich. The trial began last year.

All the big companies - Novartis Seeds, Aventis CropScience and Bayer CropScience - have told the government that no crops are being grown this year. The largest British research centres, including the Natural Environment Research Council, which uses the Rothamsted research establishment at Harpenden in Hertfordshire, have also stopped GM trials. The testing of crops in British conditions is necessary before commercial planting. After years of effort, only one crop, Chardon LL maize, has been given the commercial go-ahead by the government, and that was withdrawn last month because Bayer said the conditions were too arduous.

The failure to test further varieties of crops is interpreted by industry watchers as despair at ever getting the technology accepted in Britain. Sue Mayer, of Genewatch, said: "It is a sign of how fully the British public has rejected GM, and how the companies are giving up. It is reflected across the rest of Europe. Research is now being directed elsewhere to other ways of improving crops which do not involve GM." In 2002, when there were 140 licences issued to grow GM crops, 105 were associated with the government's trials to see whether three key crops were better or worse for the environment than conventional varieties. Another 17 were unrelated trials to check whether GM crops reseeded in subsequent years, and others were to test whether crops such as GM barley and potatoes were successful in the British climate.

Last year Bayer abandoned further field trials because of government insistence that it should give grid references of plantings. The company claimed that as a result most of its trials had been "trashed" by GM opponents. The government still maintains its enthusiasm for GM crops, which it says it will be dealt with on a crop by crop basis after applications. Yesterday, however, it showed a renewed interest in the organic sector by announcing new payments for environmental benefits. Organic farmers will get £30 a hectare as a recognition of the benefit to wildlife and the damage avoided by not using pesticides and other chemicals which get into water supplies and rivers. Conventional farmers will be able to earn £30 a hectare and organic farmers a second £30 under a points system for other improvements, such as looking after hedgerows and providing field margins for wildlife.

Paul Brown, environment correspondent, The Guardian