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British study uncovers GM contamination in oilseed rape

(Thursday, Jan. 2, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Financial Times: Genes from GM crops are interbreeding on a large scale with other crops and weeds, according to the results of a government report which examined official trials, it emerged yesterday.

Evidence from the six-year research programme shows that for the first time in Britain contamination between engineered oilseed rape and non-GM plants does exist.

The research, which has given the first results from official farm-scale trials will prove a major embarrassment to the government, which has gone on record as saying the results would settle the debate on whether GM crops were a danger to the environment.

Nicola Sturgeon, SNP shadow health minister, said the findings had uncovered one of the greatest fears about GM crops and called for a halt to the experiments.

''Cross-pollination has always been a very frightening development. Given that we have insufficient information about growing GM crops we should not be doing it. The health hazards are enormous.''

Earlier this month doctors from the British Medical Association suggested a GM ban to the Scottish Parliament. The move followed an investigation prompted by a 6000-signature petition collected by protesters from the Munlochy GM trial site in Ross-shire. Munlochy was among 60 GM trial sites in the UK studied in the report.

Jo Hunt, director of the lobby group Highlands and Islands GM Concern, said that the findings were only the ''tip of the iceberg'' and also called for GM trials to be stopped.

''If one part of the science of GM has been shown to be flawed we need to examine the rest of it,'' she said. ''What we have here is a 'trickle down' potential of other unwanted traits. Horizontal gene transfer means in effect that the genie is out of the bottle and can never be recaptured.

''The government has always tried to reassure people this would never occur. Ross Finnie, the rural affairs minister, ignored the vote of the transport and environment committee in April which called for GM trials to be stopped. He said there was no proof of GM transfer in Scotland. This research has shown the truth of the matter.''

It is believed the government sought to curtail publicity by publishing an abridged version of its findings on the the web site of the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs(Defra) on Christmas Eve, knowing that no newspapers would be printed the following day.

Friends of the Earth, the environmental campaigning group, warned last night the results highlight the potential threat of ''super weeds'' in the British countryside.

The research found that the weed wild turnip was affected by gene flow when planted next to GM oilseed rape, prompting fears that it could become resistant to herbicides.

Current isolation requirements for GM crops could be reviewed following the publication of the results.

Peter Riley, spokesman for Friends of the Earth, said: ''These results should cause the government to think again about the long-term implications on the commercial growing of oilseed rape. Contamination of crops and seeds is inevitable once commercial growing begins.

''The prospect of super weeds causing problems for farmers is a step nearer.''

Mr Riley accused the advisory committee on releases to the environment (ACRE) of complacency over contamination levels and called on the government to review ACRE's role.

He also criticised Defra for not publishing the full report on its website.

He added: ''It's unusual because the department is usually open. It seems to me to be moving backwards rather than forwards.''

Last night Dr Dan Barlow, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: ''Oil seed rape has been the main oil seed crop grown in Scotland. If GM crops are allowed to be grown then organic and conventional farmers can kiss their 'GM-free' status goodbye, which will be a major commercial blow.

''These results show that the protesters at Munlochy and Newport on Tayport and elsewhere in Scotland were absolutely right.''

The work, which was reviewed by ACRE, focused on GM oilseed rape crops at sites including official farm-scale trials. In some samples, the GM oilseed rape contaminated normal crops 200 metres away.

The report summary published on the Defra website stated that commercial scale releases of GM oilseed rape in the future could pollinate other crops and Brassica rapa (wild turnip).

It added: ''There may be a need to review isolation requirements in keeping with current legislation on contamination thresholds in crops, in light of this research.''

A spokesman for DEFRA said: ''There's been no decision on the future of GM. If a decision is made discussions on separation distances will be part of that.''

He said the results, which included research on a pilot farm-scale trial, were as expected, showing low levels of contamination. He said publishing the report on Christmas Eve was not the ''ideal time'', but said: ''There has been no attempt to mislead.''