Concern at new GM proposals

Friends of the Earth will fight new government proposals as a "thinly disguised" way of effectively enabling farmers in England to grow GM crops.

Xref leader

By MICHAEL POLLITT

Rural affairs editor

Friends of the Earth will fight new government proposals as a "thinly disguised" way of effectively enabling farmers in England to grow GM crops.

Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) must protect the countryside, food and farming and not let GM in by the backdoor, said Foe's food campaigner Clare Oxborrow.

But Environment Minister Ian Pearson said in London yesterday : "The proposals are not a green light for GM crops."

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And, no commercial crops will be grown in England before 2009 at the very earliest, he added.

Mr Pearson said: "We have a strict EU regime in place which ensures only GM crops that are safe for human health and the environment could be grown in the UK. No GMs suitable for UK conditions have met this requirement so far."

Defra wants rules to protect farmers growing organic or conventional crops from potential GM contamination and strict separation distances between GM and conventional crops.

Any farmer planning to grow GM crops like maize or oilseed rape must follow the required separation distances, currently recommended at least 100m, and also notify neighbouring farmers, to minimise GM cross-pollination.

East Anglia was in the forefront of official GM trials for three years from 1999, which involved crops including oilseed rape, sugar beet and forage maize.

Breckland farmer David Hill, who held trials on his family farm at Bradenham, near Dereham, warned yesterday: "We are being left behind as more than 100m hectares of GM crops are being grown around the world. We cannot ignore this technology which competitors are using with great success.

"If we take just one key crop, sugar beet, we could eliminate one million litres of crop spray a year and really do something for the environment. It is deeply frustrating," he added.

Defra wants to know whether there should be a public GM crop register, guidance on voluntary GM zones and compensation schemes for organic growers.

The government-sponsored GM Nation? public debate in 2003, revealed that 85pc of the public opposed growing GM crops in Britain, said Foe's campaigner, Ms Oxborrow.

West Norfolk farmer, Lord (Peter) Melchett, who is the policy director of Soil Association, said: "If the Government sticks to this policy, part of the prime minister's legacy will be to leave a GM contaminated country behind him.

"The prime minister is promoting a technology that is well past its sell-by date. GM crops have contributed nothing to the UK economy.

"More and more scientific evidence of the risk to human health posed by genetic engineering has emerged. The British people have overwhelmingly rejected GM food. It is clear that GMOs have no part to play in the future of British food and farming," said Lord Melchett, who farms at Ringstead, near Hunstanton.

Hertfordshire farmer Bob Fiddaman, chairman of the farm supply chain group Scimac, said: "Co-existence is about promoting choice, not prejudice. It is not a pro- or anti-GM issue.

"This consultation concerns the practical measures which will be needed to let farmers choose between GM and non-GM crop production, and to give consumers a choice between GM and non-GM products."