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The Independent, 16 August 2002

Ministers suspend GM crop-testing

By Paul Kelbie and Marie Woolf

The Government's controversial GM crop-testing programme was thrown into disarray yesterday after it emerged that a number of fields had been contaminated with unauthorised seeds since the trials began three years ago.

Ministers ordered the suspension of the final phase of the farm-scale trials, which had been scheduled to begin next week, after a variety of unauthorised genetically modified oilseed rape was grown in 14 fields in England and Scotland. It had been mixed illegally with other GM seeds which were being sown to test their effects on the environment.

Government inspectors visited Aventis now Bayer CropScience, the biotechnology company responsible for producing the seeds, in April, but failed to detect the problem. It was spotted during a routine inspection by the Scottish Agricultural College of the experimental crops in Scotland.

The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said the contamination did not present any danger to public health. But the affair will undermine confidence in the regulatory safeguards and monitoring structures of the trials.

The unauthorised variety of oilseed rape, which is not licensed for sale or planting in Britain, contains an extra gene which has been modified to make it resistant to at least two types of antibiotics. The European Union has called for all GM plants containing this antibiotic-resistant marker gene to be phased out, because of fears that animals and humans eating such GM food could eventually develop immunity to drugs.

Defra admitted yesterday that the discovery of the wrong GM strain was a "very serious breach" of GM regulations.

The seeds in question were sown as part of the Farm Scale Evaluations in England in 1999 at three sites, in 2000 at six sites and are currently being grown at 12 sites in England and two in Scotland. Aventis informed the Government of the contamination on 7 August, and a committee of government experts was asked to investigate the same day. The company could face prosecution with unlimited fines or five-year prison sentences if found guilty of breaching the rules.

Environmental campaigners suggested that other "alien" GM seeds could have crept into the trials without being noticed, rendering the field trials invalid.

Analysis: Test genes are being phased out - but for now the trial will be abandoned

By Steve Connor Science Editor , The Independent, 16 August 2002

A single gene that confers resistance to two antibiotics is at the heart of the scandal over the contaminated oilseed rape. As a result of the mix-up these particular field trials will have to be abandoned and the crops destroyed.

Scientists have in the past used antibiotic-resistance genes when they genetically engineered crops because it helped them to determine whether the transfer of other commercially important genes had taken place.

However, because of the wider concerns over the dissemination of antibiotic resistance in the environment the practice had gradually been phased out.

Most GM crops have antibiotic-resistance genes - an historical remnant from the way the crops were originally created - but in this particular set of field trials the Government did not approve the GM variety of oilseed rape which included the antibiotic resistance trait.

Nevertheless, it appears that Aventis had accidentally introduced a variety of oilseed rape containing an antibiotic-resistance gene called nptII, which confers resistance to two closely related antibiotics, neomycin and kanamycin.

Neither of these antibiotics is widely used in human medicine and the Government's scientific advisers on the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (Acre) said that there were no risks to human health or to the environment.

When scientists originally made the GM oilseed rape they would have inserted the nptII gene along with the other commercially important genes that make the crops resistant to herbicides. This would be done in the laboratory on single groups of cells which would then be grown in a culture medium containing the antibiotics. Only those cells which had taken up the nptII gene - along with the other genes - would therefore survive the treatment and grow into adult plants to become the original stock for the GM crop.

Acre scientists said that the nptII gene is not considered harmful because it will only be transferred from GM plants into soil bacteria at very low rates, if at all and in any case the gene is naturally present in a wide variety of bacteria.

Acre also pointed out that the antibiotics are of little clinical importance. "As a result of these considerations, Acre concluded that the presence of the additional transformation events did not pose any additional risks to human health or the environment," the committee said. "In the light of this conclusion and the imminent harvest of the trials, Acre advised that the currently growing plants should be harvested on a date that would minimise seed shed, and that no changes to the conditions on the consents concerning post-harvest monitoring were required."

The committee has asked Aventis to give "urgent attention" to the "robustness" of its quality control. It also said that it was disappointed that the contamination had gone on for a number of years without being detected.

The incident has caused severe embarrassment for the company and the Government.