Brussels will have final say on GM crops

FORDYCE MAXWELL RURAL AFFAIRS EDITOR

LAST week, the Scottish Executive rejected criticism by the parliamentary health committee about the way it had conducted genetically modified crop trials.

It seemed that did not auger well for public debate this summer on whether GM crops might be grown commercially in Britain within a few years.

But almost lost in the rejection, reaction from the slighted health committee and renewed protests from anti-GM campaigners, was the fact that the commercial GM decision will be made in Brussels. In effect, any decision made in Scotland, Wales or England will be irrelevant.

That was confirmed this week by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which said that the UK government can vote on an approval application but has no power to ban a GM crop approved by the European Commission.

Farmers Weekly online reported a Defra official yesterday as saying that: "Consents are granted by an EU-wide process, and the UK is bound by that decision." The spokesman also said that the public debate on GMs, due to start in May, will have little bearing on whether applications are approved.

He said: "Objections need to be based on scientific evidence. The public debate is not about commercialisation, but the wider GM issues and informing people about policy issues."

Under a voluntary agreement, no crops will be commercialised in the UK until field trials are completed in September. Given that, it is possible the first commercial GM crop for the UK might be approved before the end of this year.

As well as the Scottish Executive report last week defending GM trials, Franz Fischler, European commissioner for agriculture, announced that "no form of agriculture must be excluded from the EU".

That was interpreted, both by pro- and anti-GM groups as a green light for the new technology, which is now common in a number of countries - about 100 million acres of GM crops are being grown - but has been resisted in Europe.

Refusal by the European Union to allow commercial GM crops would continue to cause problems in World Trade Organisation talks, with America claiming the ban was simply a way of restricting US imports.

Friends of the Earth says that Fischler’s apparent wish to allow farmers who wish to grow GM crops to grow them, would be a "licence to pollute the food and farming environment" and cause chaos in the countryside.

Legal liability if contamination of non-GM crops takes place will also be a massive issue, say anti-GM groups.

There are 18 individual applications from biotech companies for commercial approval of GM crops in European Union countries. Two of those are for the UK, from Monsanto for maize and Bayer for oilseed rape, both to be used in animal feed and food products.

Several weeks ago representatives of leading biotech firms, including Monsanto and Bayer, spent several days in Scotland on a "charm offensive" and said they believed that commerical GM crops would be grown in the UK within five years.