WALES: GM maize shouldn’t be approved, says Welsh Agriculture Committee

The Agriculture Committee of the Welsh Assembly has recommended that Wales' Agriculture Secretary decline from approving Aventis GM T25 maize for inclusion on the UK's National Seed List.

The Committee’s recommendation is non-binding and its debate on the GM maize variety will continue at its next meeting on 15 March.

What makes the Welsh Agriculture Committee decision unusual is that it constitutes the first time a group of democratically-elected officials has been consulted on the placing of a GM seed variety on the UK National Seed List. In England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, ministers (or the devolved equivalent) responsible for the National Seed List have made recommendations regarding a GM variety’s inclusion on the list without consulting a committee or legislative body.

Inclusion on a National Seed List is the final step before a GM variety can be used commercially, however the UK Government has reached a voluntary agreement with seed companies that no commercial growing of GM crops will take place before 2003 (see related story).

Reacting to the Committee’s recommendation, Welsh Agriculture Secretary Christine Gwyther refused to say whether she would back the Committee or ignore it and approve Aventis GM T25 for inclusion on the National Seed List. “The initial advice I have received suggests that there is no legal basis on which to refuse its acceptance for National listings,” stated Gwyther.
Nonetheless, Gwyther outlined two ways she may be able to withhold approval of the GM maize and confirmed that she is seeking legal advice on these. “The Office of the Counsel General is looking very carefully at the legal arguments that Friends of the Earth have put forward, and the final advice to me will need to take account of that. Secondly, I believe it is right to apply the precautionary principle and that we satisfy ourselves fully about the basis on which the experts have assessed this particular seed as not posing a threat to human health or the environment.”

Gwyther has stated on several occasions that she would like to see a GM-free agriculture industry in Wales because it would offer the country a unique marketing opportunity.

Despite the Agriculture Secretary’s seeming bias against GM, FoE Wales is not overly optimistic that Gwyther will withhold her approval of the GM maize variety. “She’s given us a lot of lip service, but she hasn’t been able to back up her words with action,” Raoul Bhambral of FoE Wales told edie. “She’s taken the issue to committee for discussion, but that’s all it is.”

Bhambral also questions whether Gwyther is fully aware of her legal options should she withhold approval. “We have reason to doubt the quality of legal advice being provided by the Assembly,” says Bhambral.

Although FoE Wales welcomes Gwyther’s call for representatives of the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment and the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes to answer questions at the next Welsh Agriculture Committee meeting, the NGO believes that Gwyther cannot avoid taking a stand one way or the other. Bhambral says that officials at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food themselves don’t know what would happen if Wales failed to approve a GM variety – the current system appears to require unanimous approval by England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Last month, Germany’s Health Minister banned another form of GM maize, a version marketed by Novartis (see related story).

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