Minister pledges redress for GM harm

Organic and conventional crops set to win protection

Paul Brown, environment correspondent
Wednesday February 12, 2003
The Guardian

Organic and conventional farmers should have the right to compensation if their crops are damaged or made unsellable by cross pollination from neighbouring GM fields, the environment minister, Michael Meacher, said yesterday.

At present farmers who choose to grow genetically modified crops have no liability if they damage a neighbour's livelihood. Mr Meacher said this could not continue and the government was considering changing the law.

The European commission was drafting legislation to make farmers and GM seed companies liable if they damaged biodiversity or human health, but this did not cover the fact that GM crops might affect the economic interests of non-GM farmers, he said.

A committee was considering what extra domestic legislation might be needed.

Speaking at a conference exploring whether commercial GM crops should be introduced into Britain, he said the absence of a legal right of redress had to be addressed before production began.

"We need to consider how best to protect the interests of all farmers, including organic farmers," he said.

"Our approach to GM must be compatible with the government's ambitions for the expansion of organic farming: to increase the UK's market share of organic produce sold in the UK from 30 per cent to 70 per cent. We need to consider the terms upon which GM and non-GM production might co-exist. This might include establishing separation distances to limit cross-pollination."

The conference was organised by Genewatch UK, in association with the Guardian, Unilever, the Elm Farm Research Centre and the campaign group Five Year Freeze.

Mr Meacher conceded that the government's plans for public debate on GM crops before it decides whether to go ahead with commercial growing were behind schedule. One problem was that the Scottish and Welsh administrations were out of step with Westminster and wanted extra time for debate.

He believed the government had addressed the complaint that the public consultation was underfunded, having added #155,000 to the money available, making it more than #400,000.

He accepted that "the public generally lack trust in the government, and fear that the debate may be no more than a PR exercise".

He also accepted that the public wanted to explore why GM was necessary, why it was potentially useful, and why it should be avoided.

There were three studies to be completed before the government made up its mind.

First, the chief scientific adviser, David King, was leading a review of scientific literature, advised by the food standards agency.

Second, the No 10 strategy unit was making a comprehensive and balanced analysis of costs and benefits, including the potential positive and negative impacts on human health, the environment, industry and science, and the effect on developing countries.

Third, a three-year farm-scale evaluation programme was looking at the effect of GM crops on insects, weeds and biodiversity generally, compared with standard farming methods. There would be public discussion of the results before a decision on whether to go ahead with GM crops.

A second conference was held at the Royal Society to discuss the scientific issues. Lord May, the president, said it had been called because a great deal had been heard about the possible dangers of GM and not enough about the potential benefits.

The conference discussed whether the technology could help reduce the environmental damage caused by modern farming practices, and the fears of a long-term impact.