Minister admits GM ‘buffer zones’ are not foolproof
THE Scottish executive has admitted for the first time that safeguards to prevent genetically modified (GM) crops from contaminating areas surrounding test sites are not foolproof, writes Mark Macaskill.

In a letter to the SNP, Ross Finnie, the environment minister, admitted that separation distances could “only minimise levels of cross-pollination” and did not “guarantee zero presence” of GM material in non-GM crops grown nearby.

The admission contrasts with previous assurances from the government and the GM industry. Until now, the government has insisted that buffer zones are sufficient to prevent cross-contamination. In Britain 50 metres is deemed safe although other countries, including Canada, insist on at least 800 metres.

In a written response to Bruce Crawford, the SNP environment spokesman,Finnie said: “It has always been recognised that growing pollen-producing plants in the open environment will unavoidably result in very small quantities of pollen travelling outwith the trial site.”

Trials are being held at 178 sites in Britain, 12 of them in Scotland.

Earlier this year independent tests commissioned by The Sunday Times revealed that GM crops had contaminated honey in beehives up to two miles from a test site in Newport, Fife.

A recent study by the University of Newcastle also revealed that volunteers who ate one meal containing GM soya had traces of modified DNA in bacteria in their small intestines, raising fears that GM foods — which are often modified to be resistant to antibiotics — could leave Britons vulnerable to untreatable diseases.

Scientists are divided on the issue. While respected bodies such as the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment have concluded that the gene flow of modified material is too small to be of concern, independent experts and even ministers insist there is insufficient evidence to support their recommendations.