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Welsh organic farmers oppose transgenic trials near their farms

(May 11, 2001 Cropchoice news) One transgenic test trial has been postponed indefinitely in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, activists, including farmers, are working to shut down another.

The company contracting to run a trial on a farm in Pembrokeshire and the landowner who had allowed it in the end relented to pressure to stop it.

This comes as good news to the Welsh Assembly, which has been working to keep Wales free of transgenic crops. Organic farmers also oppose the trials for fear that pollen from trial plots would contaminate their crops.

Another trial is under attack, this one in Warwickshire. Cropchoice presents here a transcript of comments that UK Environment Minister Michael Meacher made to the BBC on Monday about the controversy surrounding possible transgenic crop trials near the largest organic agriculture research center in Europe.

Presenter (Sue MacGregor): "The decision to allow an officially-sanctioned trial of genetically-modified maize close to Europe's largest research centre for organic crops - that's in Warwickshire - is a truly catastrophic one - according to environmentalists. The Environment Minister, Michael Meacher, is making an unprecedented effort to stop the trial even though his own department announced that it could go ahead a month ago. The trial is due to begin this week.

"Michael Meacher is on the phone. It does seem a bit odd that this trial was passed?"

Michael Meacher MP: "Well, it is the responsibility of SCIMAC, which is the farm biotechnology group, in negotiation with the farmers to produce a pool of sites for GM cultivation, from which the research contractors and the Scientific Steering Committee which oversees the GM trials then make their selection to meet their research requirements. I didn't make the choice and neither I nor the Scientific Steering Committee knew that this GM site was near the research centre when it was given the go-head."

Presenter: "So what exactly have you asked them to do in the letter that you have sent?"

Michael Meacher MP: "Well, I'm asking the Scientific Steering Committee, who as I say are overseeing the trials, and SCIMAC, the biotechnology group in the farming industry, and the local farmer to drop this GM site and find an alternative one. Because it does threaten the Henry Doubleday Research Centre near Ryton in Warwickshire, as you've said. That is Europe's largest research centre for organic crops. It has a world-wide reputation and, if it were allowed to go ahead, the GM pollen could cross-pollinate with three crops of organic sweet-corn that are grown at Ryton and that, in turn, could contaminate the seed-bank. Any trace of GM - this is the real point - any trace of GM in the research centre's fields could lead to the loss of licence from the Soil Association to grow organic crops. That would be a disaster."

Presenter: "...one of the strongest arguments always against GM crop trials is that they might contaminate nearby crops, isn't it? And now you yourself seem to be saying this proximity is unacceptable? So..."

Michael Meacher MP: "There has to be an adequate distance. In this case, it is about two miles from the proposed GM site. Now the current separation distance used by SCIMAC for maize crops like this one is only two hundred metres and, whilst it is true that farming experience suggests that in normal conditions some 99% of GM pollen will settle within that distance, in unusual conditions of high winds, pollen grains can go much, much further."

Presenter: "And you feel these could be unusual conditions?"

Michael Meacher MP: "Well, we've been having unusual conditions with increasing frequency in this country and the problem is that a GM field can produce tens of millions of pollen grains and, even if only a smaller proportion of O.1% was blown one or two miles, that would still amount to hundreds of thousands of GM pollen grains."

Presenter: "It sounds as if you're saying that GM crops now are something you can't give your wholehearted support to - the trials?"

Michael Meacher MP: "No, I'm not saying that. I am actually giving my wholehearted support to seeing these trials through. We desperately need, in this country, to have a test..."

Presenter: "But you'll have to ask them to move, won't you?"

Michael Meacher MP: "Well in this case - after all we have got the whole of England and Wales - the fact is in this case there are about 100 sites this year. It is perfectly possible, in my view, to find an alternative site. The problem is that neither EU nor UK legislation allows a decision to be made on the basis that it damages the interests of adjacent farmers and I think that is a huge gap in the regulations." Presenter: "So if they go ahead anyway - as they say they will - and plant, you won't be able to do anything, will you?"

Michael Meacher MP: "Well, I do have the powers to stop the cultivation if it can be shown that GM crops are a risk to human health or would damage the environment and certainly there are three, I think, ways out of this. We need either a liability provision in law whereby a GM farmer - or any other kind of farmer - is made statutorily liable for any damage caused to neighbouring farmers - we are working on that - or we need separation distances negotiated, large enough to be broadly acceptable to both GM and conventional and organic farmers - and that, of course could be well in excess of current separation distances. Or, thirdly, the law needs to be tested as to whether damage to the environment could be construed as meaning damage to the crops of nearby farmers - there is some legal uncertainty here."

Presenter: "Well, we shall watch the position with interest. Michael Meacher, thanks very much."

Source: BBC