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INDEPENDENT - Two items on Genetic manipulation



INDEPENDENT (London) May 20

Blair wrong on GM crops, says chief government scientist

THE GOVERNMENT'S most senior scientist has contradicted Tony Blair's
policy on genetically modified crops with a call for a four-year ban on
their commercial release.

By Paul Waugh and Charles Arthur

In a letter leaked to The Independent, Sir Robert May, the Chief
Scientific Adviser, states that ministers should not allow GM crops to be
released on to the market before 2003 "at the earliest".

Mr Blair and his ministers have repeatedly refused demands for a four-year
ban from English Nature and other environmental groups, preferring instead
a voluntary agreement with bio-tech companies.

But in a letter to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB),
Sir Robert makes it clear he agrees with its view that no releases should
occur until farm-scale crop trials are completed at the end of 2002. "I
guess we really are in complete agreement, because I share your view that
I 'do not see how ministers could contemplate giving permission for
commercial release of the GM crops covered by this research until January
2003 at the earliest'," he writes.

Sir Robert's comments conflict directly with the Government's position on
the issue and represent the most high-profile support to date for
environmentalists' calls for a moratorium. His stance will cause intense
embarrassment to ministers, as he will appear at a government press
conference next week to unveil a report that he co-wrote with the Chief
Medical Officer (CMO), Sir William Donaldson. The report, which will be
presented by Jack Cunningham, the Cabinet Office Minister, will conclude
that genetically modified foods are safe to eat.

When the controversy over GM foods first broke earlier this year, Mr Blair
told the Commons that a moratorium would increase rather than reduce
public concern over the safety of GM crops.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, and other cabinet ministers also
issued an open letter ruling out a moratorium. Their joint statement made
clear that the Government believed that the case for permitting commercial
plantings should also be considered after each year of the four-year farm
trials. "We believe it would be appropriate to allow a move to limited and
carefully monitored production after, say, one year of farm-scale trials
if the evidence was sufficient to demonstrate clearly that the crop would
not have a damaging effect on the environment," the statement said.

Dr Mark Avery, director of conservation at the RSPB, said that there now
seemed a clear gap between government policy on the commercial release of
GM crops and the opinions of its chief scientific adviser.

"The Government should end the speculation and announce that there will be
no commercial release until 2003 at the earliest. To do otherwise would
give the impression that political pressure from industry was overriding
arguments based on science," he said.

"The RSPB has constantly pressed the Government to delay the commercial
release of GM crops until the full four-year trial period has elapsed and
it would seem the Chief Scientific officer now agrees with us.

"Public confidence in GM technology is already fragile and any suggestion
that the Government is ignoring its own scientific advisers over
environmental safety might have damaging consequences."

Government anxiety over the issue was further revealed yesterday by a
leaked Cabinet Office memo, showing that ministers have a secret spin
offensive to push the benefits of bio-technology and to "get on the front
foot" in the media furore over GM crops and food.

The three-page memo from the meeting on Monday last week shows that
ministers are worried that they are not "getting the message across".

Among those attending were Mr Cunningham, the Health minister, Tessa
Jowell, the Environment minister, Michael Meacher and the Agriculture
minister, Jeff Rooker. The three-page memo shows that a committee drawn
from five departments has been monitoring media coverage of the GM debate,
with the Government seeking an "independent" scientist who would appear
onBBC Radio 4's Today programme to back the technology, while civil
servants are required to find non-government sources who would write
supportive articles for the media once the CMO's report is published. It
also reveals that ministers have approached the National Consumers'
Council "to seek their endorsement".

Charles Secrett, executive director of Friends of the Earth, which was
sent the leaked document, said last night: "The truth is out there at last
- the Government is not interested in a genuine debate on GM food. It
wants to spin GM food down our throats whether we like it or not. The
Government is wasting the time of officials all over Whitehall, not to
ensure that decisions about GM food are made in the public interest, but
to try to avoid looking stupid in the newspapers."

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INDEPENDENT (London) May 20

Modified pollen kills threatened butterfly

By Steve Connor Science Editor

The strongest evidence yet has emerged to show that genetically modified
crops pose a significant risk to wildlife. Scientists have found that
pollen from GM plants can kill endangered butterflies.

One of the first studies into the environmental effects of GM crops found
that caterpillars of the monarch butterfly suffered serious side-effects
when they fed on leaves dusted with pollen from GM maize.

Nearly half of the caterpillars died and those that managed to survive
grew to only about half their normal size, the scientists report in the
journal Nature.

"These results have potentially profound implications for the conservation
of monarch butterflies," write John Losey, Linda Rayor and Maureen Carter,
all of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

The monarch is one of the most beautiful butterflies in the world and its
extraordinary migratory route from Mexico to the US is already threatened
by habitat loss. The scientists used the pollen of maize that had been
genetically engineered with a bacteria toxin called Bt which is commonly
used to protect GM crops against insect pests.

They dusted the pollen over milkweed leaves - the normal food of monarch
caterpillars - to see if the toxicity was transferred with the pollen,
which can be blown more than 60 metres from a maize field.

It took just four days for the side-effects to appear, and the scientists
concluded that it must be due to the pollen being toxic because no similar
effects were seen on caterpillars that had fed on pollen-free leaves.

Dr Rayor, an entomologist at Cornell, said that biotechnology companies
had not previously tested the effects of GM maize pollen on butterflies
although they had shown that the pollen was non-toxic to bees and
ladybirds.

"Monarchs are considered to be a flagship species for conservation. This
is a warning bell. What is really new in this research is that we have
shown that toxins can float in the wind," Dr Rayor said.

Although there are no plans to introduce GM maize into Britain,
biotechnology companies are hoping to gain permission to grow GM oilseed
rape and other crops engineered with the Bt toxin.

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