GM crop trials 'should be secret'
2008-07-29 0:00

By Pallab Ghosh |

Senior researchers have called for the location of small open-air trials of GM crops to be kept secret.

The researchers say that vandalism of GM crop trials is holding back research in the area.

Current legislation requires the exact location of GM crop trials to be publicly available.

But according to those engaged in active research, that information is invariably used by anti-GM protesters to disrupt experiments.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which licenses open air trials commented: "EU legislation says that we must disclose GM trial locations to the public.

"We are awating a European Court of Justice ruling, likely later this year, on a French legal case that should clarify how the EU law in this area can be interpreted by Member States."

Professor Howard Atkinson began a trial of GM potatoes earlier this year which he hoped would be resistant to disease.

The crops were pulled up three weeks after they were planted. Professor Atkinson is due to meet with the environment minister Phil Woolas in early September and will ask him to consider making changes to the current legislation.

"We should follow the same approach as that followed in Canada for very small scale trials of say 400 plants or so - where the risks are looked at by a panel but the location of those sites is not revealed," Professor Atkinson explained.

"The other possibility is to identify some national testing centre or centres where such trials could be run securely without the risk of zealots destroying them".

Security issues

Professor Atkinson said that open air trials were necessary to develop crops that could not only help farmers in the UK - but also help increase food production in Africa.

The disruption of trials, he said, has already led to companies moving away from the UK and academic research in the area has begun to decline.

"Academically, there has been a reduction in the attempt to do work of this type - they've found other problems to look at - but these are not generating practical benefits immediately and certainly not facing up to the big issue of food security in Africa," he said.

"As far as companies are concerned, they can do this sort of work elsewhere"

Jim Dunwell of Reading University and a member of ACRE, the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, said there had been a sharp drop in the number of GM crop trials in Britain over the last few years with just one application for this year, down from about 20 to 30 per year in the late 1990s.

Local communities
Wayne Powell, who is the director of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany in Cambridge, was engaged in a trial of a crop that had the potential to benefit banana growers in Uganda. It was disrupted by protesters last year.

As a result, he said: "We now have 24-hour security, we have fences around materials."

However, anti-GM campaigners, such as Claire Oxborough of Friends of the Earth, believe that the trials should be stopped altogether.

She commented: "Friends of the Earth would have deep concerns about making them secret because of the potential risks that they pose.

"They are at the very early stages of development - we don't know the impact they'll have on the environment and on health and very often these trials are not set up to look at that."

She added: "What you don't want to do is get into a situation where in rural communities you have an air of distrust - rumours, speculation going on because no one knows what their neighbours might be growing.

"We need transparency - we need to know where these field trials are taking place so that farmers and the public can be adequately protected."

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