The Committee which advises the Government on GM releases into the environment has been caught "with its pants down", recommending that Bayer Cropscience should be allowed to conduct GM winter oilseed rape trials without revealing the locations.
The members of the Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment (ACRE) were caught in the act by a vigilant FoE member who checked the minutes of the ACRE meeting of 4th September (1). She discovered that ACRE members had acceded to Bayer's request under the "simplified application procedure" to conduct GM crop trials over the winter with notification of site details only "prior to harvest." This meant that Bayer could notify DEFRA of the six-figure grid references for GM crop plantings on the day before harvesting, and that harvesting would be over and done with by the time that the site information was placed by DEFRA onto the public register. In plain English, this meant that the crop trials would be held at secret locations.
Brian John, a spokesman for GM Free Cymru, accused ACRE of abandoning the public interest and promoting the interests of the GM multinationals. "This is not the first time that this has happened," he said. "For the last few years ACRE has a record of recommending approvals for GM crop plantings in a totally cavalier fashion, and those of us who have watched the GM scene carefully have become convinced that the committee is incapable of objective analysis of the facts. Over and again it has turned a blind eye to breaches of the regulations, and it has arrogantly dismissed the representations of those of us who have urged caution. We now know from the results of the environmental monitoring of the FSE programme that our caution has been justified, and we can only conclude that the work of ACRE has been underpinned by bad science. In our view this Committee is now discredited, and we have asked the Secretary of State to wind it up before it gets the chance to do more harm."
GM Free Cymru also claims that ACRE has acted with "utter contempt" for the safety of the environment in issuing this advice to the Secretary of State. "At its meeting on 4th September, the ACRE Committee and Secretariat were fully aware of the results of the FSE monitoring programme which show that GM oilseed rape plantings are more harmful to the environment than other GM crops," said Dr John. "There is no recognition of this in the minutes of the meeting, showing that ACRE is incompetent as well as irresponsible. The Committee clearly has no idea what the precautionary principle means, and we are now convinced that it is knowingly promoting GM plantings which are damaging to the environment. It has betrayed the Secretary of State as well as the British public."
The only positive feature of this episode is that Secretary of State Margaret Beckett apparently refused to accept the ACRE recommendation, and insisted that Bayer should submit full six-figure grid references for its GM plantings at the time of sowing. This caused Bayer to announce last week (2) that it would pull out of all GM crop trials in the UK for the time being.
1. FROM ACRE MINUTES -- 4th September 2003 meeting:
6. Applications to market or release GMOs under Directive 2001/18/EC
6.1 Application for Part B consent from Bayer CropScience Ltd to release genetically modified winter oilseed rape - 03/R38/1: National List Trial site locations ACRE/03/P39
ACRE had agreed that consent could be issued for these trials under the first simplified procedure. In supplying the site locations Bayer had departed from standard practice, only giving the county of release and arguing that this was sufficient for risk assessment purposes. ACRE was asked to consider whether this was the case.
Bayer's intention was to protect sites from vandalism, so they did not wish to release the six-figure grid reference until shortly before harvest. The GM inspectorate preferred to know the exact reference shortly after sowing so it could carry out inspections at the appropriate time. ACRE did not consider Bayer's decision led to an increased risk to human health or the environment but was concerned that failure to notify precise references would disadvantage people nearby who would have known of the site locations in the past and would have been able to modify their activities accordingly e.g. producers of organic honey.
ACRE was satisfied that any advice provided on this issue would be specific to this consent for this particular GMO and although no additional risk was identified the committee felt that the consequences of Bayer's decision should be noted in ACRE's advice. ACRE felt local interested parties should be informed. It was agreed that Bayer needed to provide six figure references prior to harvest, once notified these site details would be made available in the public domain. Bayer would also be required to provide sufficient information so that the inspectorate could operate their normal procedures.
(2) Top GM food company abandons British crop trials
Robin McKie, science editor Sunday September 28, 2003 The Observer
A key GM crop developer, Bayer, has decided to halt UK trials of genetically modified plants. The move is seen as a major blow to the industry. Bayer was the last company carrying out GM trials in the UK, though it said yesterday it hoped to start up again soon when conditions were 'more favourable'. The company blamed Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett for its decision. Her insistence that the locations of all trial sites be made public had forced its hand, a spokesman told The Observer.
Until last week, Bayer CropScience, Bayer's crop subsidiary. believed it was close to a deal that would allow GM crop test sites - which are regularly destroyed by protesters - to be kept secret. Instead of having to publish exact map references for fields, companies would only have to name the county in which it was holding a trial.
The Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment had said this vaguer notification was 'acceptable in terms of risk assessment', while the police have always complained that explicit disclosure of test site locations has been a major factor in aiding 'crop-trashers'. But at the last minute the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) told Bayer it would not support this change in regulations.
'In the absence of any moves to ensure the security for trials, Bayer CropScience has no choice, therefore, but to cease its variety trial activities in the UK for this coming season,' said the official. 'It is disappointing the criminal activities of a small minority of people have prevented information on GM crop varieties being generated.'
Most GM crop trials carried out over the past few years have been sabotaged, not only those of Bayer. Other companies have pulled out. Now Bayer, the last to continue with them, has decided to call it a day. The current 'brain drain' of UK agricultural scientists to the US and Canada is now only likely to intensify.
The fact that companies also specifically blame Beckett for this latest blow is particularly intriguing. Last week, a letter from Beckett to her fellow Ministers said Britain should back EU laws that ban all GM-free zones, a move that would give the go-ahead to the commercial growing of GM crops here.<
But as long as test GM trials are exposed to sabotage, the prospects of commercial growing look remote. 'This is a back-door moratorium,' said an industry source.