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2-Plants: New report on maize pollen dispersal

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EMBARGOED UNTIL: 0001hrs Tuesday 2 March 1999

Government advice on genetic contamination challenged by new independent report

Evidence that pollen from genetically modified crops can cause contamination over considerable distances has emerged in a new report. "The Dispersal of Maize Pollen" by Dr Jean Emberlin, Director of the National Pollen Research Unit (1), 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"(2). The Soil Association regrettably had to inform 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(3,4).

The Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE), the Government's 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"(5). However, 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"(6).

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."

This new report 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. 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"(7).

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."(8)

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. 

The Soil Association believes that it is not good enough for the biotech industry to be allowed to introduce these crops under a voluntary code of practice that fails to take cross-pollination of organic crops into account(9).

Patrick Holden, Soil Association Director, said, "The only way that the Government can fulfil its promise to protect organic farmers (and indeed conventional farmers) who wish to provide a GM-free choice for consumers is through a ban on the growing of genetically engineered maize. This report demonstrates that farmers who are attempting to grow GM-free crops will find it increasingly difficult to supply consumers with the GM-free food products that they are demanding." 


Notes to Editors: 
(1) The report entitled "The Dispersal of Maize Pollen" was commissioned by the Soil Association and written by Dr Jean Emberlin of the National Pollen Research Unit.

(2) DETR Press Release 559, 3 July 1998

(3) Three weeks ago an organic wholesaler had to destroy 87,000 packets of organic Tortilla chips from the US worth over 100,000 pounds sterling when it was discovered that they had been contaminated by GM maize, most likely through cross-pollination. 

(4) The UKROFS Board have agreed that organic producers and consumers have the right to expect Government to take adequate measures to ensure that no GM-contamination of organic crops and foods occur.

(5) DETR Press Release 559, 3 July 1998

(6) Minutes from ACRE meeting June 1998 item 1.1 - GM maize in National List trials adjacent to an organic farm in Devon  ACRE\98\P25. 

(7) The Jonathan Dimbleby programme 31 January 1999

(8) The Jonathan Dimbleby programme 21 February 1999

(9) Under the SCIMAC (An initiative of biotech companies, given the role by the Government of policing and monitoring the release of genetically modified organisms into the environment) code of practice, there is no protection for organic farmers.

For further information please contact:

Dr Jean Emberlin 01905 748066 
National Pollen Research Unit

Patrick Holden 0117 9142443 
Director, Soil Association

Harry Hadaway 0117 9142449 
Soil Association, Campaigns Office

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