Genetically modified crops may be grown in hidden locations in Britain amid fears that anti-GM campaigners are winning the battle over the controversial technology, the Guardian has learned.
Officials at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) confirmed they are looking at a range of options to clamp down on vandalism to GM crop trials, after intense lobbying by big crop biotech companies. The firms have warned that trials of GM crops are becoming too expensive to conduct in Britain because of the additional costs of protecting fields from activists.
This week, a report from the GM industry claimed that worldwide agricultural use of genetically modified crops had increased 70-fold in the last 10 years to 114m hectares in 2007.
But fears of vandalism have forced many companies to shift their crop trials abroad. Last year, only one trial went ahead in Britain, a blight-resistant GM potato developed by the German company BASF. Two activists were arrested for damage to the trial site, which was later almost completely destroyed in a night raid.
BASF plans to repeat the trial this year, at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany in Cambridgeshire. Another trial is planned by scientists at Leeds University.
A group representing the major biotech companies has asked the government to oversee specific changes to the GM trial process that would make fields of crops harder for activists to locate. Under existing laws, full details of every GM crop trial must be disclosed in advance on a government website, with a six-figure grid reference identifying the precise location of the field.
The group has asked Defra to keep details of locations on a register, which would only be shared with people who apply and who can prove they have good reason to know. Another option is to release only a four-figure reference for the trial site.
“These trials are legal, so why give carte blanche to anyone who wants to destroy them? In most countries, there is nothing like the sort of specific information that has to be given in Britain,” said Julian Little of the industry group, the Agricultural Biotechnology Council. The need to give the location of a GM crop is contained in a European directive, but it is interpreted differently across member states.
The GM companies are also keen to see stiffer penalties for activists caught damaging crop trials.
“We have to sort out the framework under which we’re allowed to do trials. If Britain is to benefit from GM technology, we have to have crop trials in Britain. There’s no use second-guessing how a crop will fare here from what has been done elsewhere,” Little said. “We have to start looking at how to produce a large amount of food on a small amount of land with a minimal environmental footprint and for that you need new technology.”
Some GM companies fear future crop trials are in greater danger because of what they claim is a “broadening out” of anti-GM activists to include anti-globalisation and possibly animal rights campaigners. British anti-GM activists have also developed links with European groups that hold training camps to share tactics, such as crossing police lines and gaining access to fields. In France and Germany, crop trashings have increased substantially as farmers have taken to growing GM crops.
Defra officials said making it harder to identify trial sites was not a straightforward process.
Only one GM crop is approved for cultivation in Europe, an insect-resistant maize, which is grown on about 110,000 hectares in member states. It is not grown in Britain because the corn pest it protects against is not found in this country. A second crop, a potato, is in the final stages of approval in Brussels, but it would only be used to produce starch for the paper industry and would probably be grown in Germany and the Czech Republic.