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11:00 - 28 June 2005

Farmers and campaigners against genetically modified (GM) crops have condemned the Environment Minister, Elliot Morley, for his support for plans to end other EU member states' rights to ban GM crops and foods. Mr Morley was trying to persuade environment ministers across Europe that they should follow European Commission proposals to lift the GM bans.

Instead, EU ministers overwhelmingly rejected the proposals to lift the bans imposed by Austria, Luxembourg, Germany, France and Greece. The countries' objections to GM crops are based on the fear that genetically manipulated genes could get into the environment.

Earlier this week anti-GM campaigners in the region welcomed the EU ministers' decision, but said Mr Morley appeared to be moving in favour of GM crops without scientific evidence.

Campaigner Robert Vint, of Totnes-based Genetic Food Alert UK, said: "When Elliot Morley says that European ministers are going against sound science it is ridiculous as the research has not been done. Banning GM food and crops is a scientifically rational precaution until such research has taken place."

Mr Vint said that many countries in Europe had GM-free zones and most of the counties in the Westcountry had declared themselves GM-free zones.

"Organic farmers certainly want GM-free zones and fairly large ones at that because there is no point in having tiny ones," he said.

Mr Morley warned EU ministers that they were heading for a trade war with the US, which has already reported the matter to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), claiming that the bans were a restriction on trade.

Mr Vint said: "The WTO postponed taking a decision because of a lack of scientific data and they should be reaching some sort of conclusion in the next few months."

After the European environment ministers' meeting, Mr Morley said the Government was not acting as an "advocate" for GM.

"We have always said we would deal with each case on its merits having first taken scientific advice," he said.

South Devon farmer John Sherrell, chairman of the farming pressure group FARM, said he was very concerned by Mr Morley's approach.

"It doesn't make sense in terms of the market. All the emerging trends are that consumers are becoming increasingly savvy about the food that they eat," he said. Predicting a massive emerging market for GM-free produce, he added: "If you just grow GM crops you are pushing farmers down the line of just producing a commodity. That is really not what we need, particularly in a region like the Westcountry where we can establish a reputation for growing high quality and safe food."

Hector Christie, the North Devon environmental campaigner who set up a group called Save Our World, said: "Elliot Morley just seems ready to capitulate and do what the big GM companies want."

Mr Christie, an ardent campaigner against the contiguous cull policy in the 2001 foot and mouth crisis, has been lobbying supermarkets to ensure that they will not stock GM foods.

Friends of the Earth welcomed the environment ministers' decision, calling it a "victory" for European consumers who were overwhelmingly opposed to GM food.