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Ministers back EU stance, but no agreement is likely till next year

(Monday, Sept. 22, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Paul Brown, The Guardian: Decisions on the commercial growing of genetically modified crops cannot be taken until next year at the earliest, because environmental and legal rules have yet to be worked out, the government said yesterday.

Although Tony Blair and Lord Sainsbury, the science minister, had hoped that GM crops could be grown alongside ordinary crops as soon as possible, continued public opposition and legal obstacles are making this less and less likely.

In a letter to her cabinet colleagues, Margaret Beckett, the environment secretary, urged them to support the EU stance that it is up to each member country to decide on the separation distances required between conventional crops and GM crops, and the liability regime if GM crops contaminate ordinary or organic crops and make them unsaleable.

In the letter, Mrs Beckett indicated that she would back the EU proposals at a meeting of European agriculture ministers at the end of the month.

She wrote: "I am proposing that we broadly support the [European] commission's guidelines as providing a reasonable basis to address the issue." She attached a summary of the EU rules, which state that "no form of agriculture (conventional, organic, GM) should be excluded from the EU".

In reply, the trade and industry secretary, Patricia Hewitt, said: "I agree that our interests are best served by giving broad support to the commission guidelines. We must also bear in mind the potential impact [on] EU-US relations."

However, this does not mean the introduction of crops is imminent. In the next three weeks the results of the government's public consultation on GM crops is likely to be published, showing continuing hostility and resistance to their early introduction.

There is also the result of the three years of crop trials in which scientists tried to establish whether GM crops had any more detrimental effect on the environment than conventional farming. The results are believed to be inconclusive.

Both reports could make uncomfortable reading for the prime minister, who wants an early introduction of GM crops to appease the biotech companies and the US, but is supposed to be listening to the views of ordinary people.

But the crucial issues are crop separation and liability. If the government decides that separation distances can be small and contamination occurs, who will the injured farmer claim against - his neighbour or the government that created the rules in the first place?

This question has so far left government advisers flummoxed. A Cabinet Office report said that if farmers and protesters thought organic or conventional farming would be damaged by GM crops, and there was no proper legal redress, it would be an invitation for anarchy and the destruction of the GM crops before they caused damage.

A Department of Environment spokesman said: "Mrs Beckett was merely informing cabinet colleagues of the EU position and suggesting the UK support it, and ministers agreed.

"There are a lot of difficult decisions to be made and each member state has to make them to suit the conditions in their own country. It won't be until next year that any permissions can be given for EU member states to grow GM crops.

"Then every country, including the UK, will decide what conditions suit our particular circumstances for each crop - if any."