New report challenges Government advice on GM crop contamination

Evidence that pollen from genetically modified crops can cause cross-fertilisation over distances considerably greater than the Government's advised 200m separation zone has emerged in a new report commissioned by the Soil Association.

‘The Dispersal of Maize Pollen’ by Dr Jean Emberlin, Director of the National Pollen Research Unit, was commissioned by the Soil Association to establish hard scientific data on the risks posed to the integrity of organically grown maize and sweetcorn from cross-pollination by genetically modified crops.

Last summer Environment Minister, Michael Meacher, refused to order the destruction of a crop of genetically modified (GM) maize bordering a Soil Association registered organic farm in Devon and claimed that “there were no grounds for halting the field trials as it will not interfere with the sweetcorn crop being grown on a nearby farm”. However, the Soil Association informed the farmer that the organic status of his sweetcorn would have to be removed if there was any evidence of contamination from the GM maize.

The Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE), the Government’s statutory advisors on the release of genetically engineered crops into the environment, stated that “at a standard separation distance of 200 metres between the organic sweetcorn and the GM maize the likely cross-pollination frequency would result in no greater than 1 sweetcorn kernel in every 40,000 being a GM hybrid”. Yet, Dr Jean Emberlin, having looked at all the research available, concluded that “in conditions of moderate wind speeds the rates of cross-pollination at 200 metres would be in the order of 1 kernel in 93.”

Evidence is cited in Dr Emberlin’s report that maize pollen is collected by bees in notable amounts. In this way the pollen is transported several miles from the crop plot in suitable weather conditions. In the case of the organic farmer in Devon, ACRE failed even to consider cross-pollination of the organic sweetcorn by bees, even though there are several hives adjacent to the test plot.

ACRE also brushed aside concerns about freak weather conditions by saying that “this was generally taken into account with seed certification standards and there was at least 200 metres from the nearest GM maize to the organic farm”.

However the report states that: “Substantial evidence exists for long range transport of considerable numbers of pollen grains….Maize pollen remains viable under normal conditions for approximately 24 hours giving potential for pollination by grains that had travelled many hundreds of kilometres on the airflow….Overall it is clear that the maize pollen spreads far beyond the 200 metres cited in several reports as being an acceptable separation distance to prevent cross-pollination.”

According to the Soil Association, this new evidence undermines confidence in the advice given to the Government by ACRE who have so far given permission to trial GE crops at over 500 sites around the country. It also says that at least 8 members of ACRE have direct links with biotech research, and 6 members are involved with companies that have been given permission by ACRE to conduct these trials. The Soil Association believes that the apparent failure of ACRE to give impartial advice on the likelihood of cross-pollination threatens to remove choice from those who want to avoid GM contamination.

Agriculture Minister, Nick Brown, has recently stated that “The Government is absolutely committed to making sure that those who do not want to eat crops that have been cross-contaminated (with GMO ingredients), or to have their crops cross-contaminated (with GMO pollen), have their rights in this protected as well”.

Food Safety Minster, Jeff Rooker, has also repeated this promise, “The Government is about in April to double the aid to persuade farmers to convert to organic production. We’re not going to allow that public money to be put at risk by a cross-contamination of GM crops when they are grown.”

The Soil Association is calling on the Government to honour these pledges and provide a response to this report with the utmost urgency in order to avoid potential cross-pollination from GE trial plots due to be planted in 1999.

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