February 9, 2004

Wales blocks go-ahead for Bayer´s GM maize

The government has been forced to postpone plans to announce today the go-ahead for GM crops in Britain after Wales and Scotland refused to cooperate. The announcement was supposed to allow, in principle, the first GM crop in Britain, a strain of GM maize called Chardon LL or T25 and patented by Bayer. The crop came out well in the three-year crop trials.

The Welsh executive, which is keen to foster organic farming, was eager to safeguard farmers and declined to give permission for the crop. Scottish opposition to Chardon LL was more muted because maize is a warm weather crop, so none would be grown north of the border. But the Scottish executive has also refused permission.

The government was considering giving the green light for maize to be grown in England alone. But the Welsh executive pointed out that UK regulations stipulate that a particular crop can be grown in one country only if the other two agree.

The postponement of today's announcement comes at an awkward time for the government. On February 18 there is a key vote in Brussels on whether to end the EU moratorium on GM crops. The government believes Europe should be opened to GM imports and cultivation of crops and had hoped that an announcement of the go-ahead for the first British crops would precede the vote.

The devolved administrations of Wales and Scotland are not the only obstacles to the early introduction of GM maize. Government lawyers have discovered wording in the EU rules for cultivation of GM crops that means the Department of Environment's intention to allow the maize to be grown close to conventional crops might be open to legal challenge because they will not sufficiently safeguard neighbouring farmers from contamination.

To deal with the crisis, a key cabinet sub-committee on biotechnology has been convened for tomorrow to try to resolve the issues. It is chaired by Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, and includes John Reid, the health secretary and Andrew Smith, minister for work.

Margaret Beckett, the environment secretary, who was due to make the policy state ment to parliament, will explain the problems to the committee dominated by pro-GM ministers, including Lord Sainsbury, the science minister, although he excludes himself from voting. Two pro-GM advisers, David King, the government chief scientist, and John Krebs, chairman of the Food Standards Agency, will also attend.

An unexpected lifeline has been thrown to the opponents of GM in the wording of EU regulations on cross-fertilisation between GM crops and conventional varieties. In order to sell produce as non-GM it must contain less than 0.9% of GM content.

The government believed that because maize pollen does not spread easily, GM maize could be grown fairly close to conventional varieties without risk of breaching this threshold. However, the EU rules say that member states must set the rules of co-existence so as to endeavour to keep contamination to zero or below 0.1% which is the detectable level of GM.

Government lawyers believe the government would be open to a probably successful legal challenge if they did not set the separation distances accordingly.

The Guardian, Paul Brown, environment correspondent