GM Free Cymru

Objection to the DEFRA proposals -- GM coexistence consultation

Press Notice from GM Free Cymru Date: 20th October 2006


GM Unit
GM Coexistence Consultation

20th October 2006

Response from GM Free Cymru

We wish to protest strongly against the intent and the letter of this consultation document, which is clearly designed to allow and indeed facilitate the contamination of UK agriculture by GM crops and thus to endanger the health of UK consumers and also to endanger the environment. The wording of the document is also profoundly unsatisfactory, when seen against a background on ongoing antipathy among the British public towards GM crops, and of Government support for GM which is wildly at odds with the views of consumers. As we have said before, the UK government's voting record on GM issues within the EC leaves us in no doubt as to DEFRA's intentions here -- and that is to contaminate by stealth. Over and again during the past couple of years we have seen evidence that GM containment is impossible, and that contamination is absolutely inevitable.

With respect to GM oilseed rape, for example, we remind DEFRA that Dr Jeremy Sweet (who now sits on the EFSA GMO Panel) said in 2003 that it will be impossible over a period of years to retain the integrity of either conventional or organic oilseed rape plantings, such is the speed of GM out-crossing. In Brussels on 11th September 2003, referring to GM oilseed rape, he said: "We need a lot more data on how pollen is distributed and how it moves and contaminates fields. GMOs can persist in one field from one year to another, even from one decade to another. Just one seed per square meter could lead to 100%
contamination." At a GM meeting in Aberystwyth on 16 April 2003 Dr Sweet said: "We do have to accept the fact that once GM oil seed rape is commercialised it will
be everywhere and that is inevitable, because conventional rape is everywhere. There is no reason why its going to behave differently from conventional rape. So once we start growing GM rape it will become as widely dispersed as conventional rape."

We therefore treat this consultation exercise as nothing more than a window-dressing exercise, designed to allow DEFRA to say that it has "taken all views into account" before going ahead with its contamination strategy. This no doubt suits the GM corporations, who have for a long time held to the principle of "contaminate first -- let legislation follow."

We wish to support the line taken by various local authorities in their submissions, namely that the proposals as currently framed:

(a) Assume that a certain level of GM contamination of conventional crops is acceptable
(b) Offer no guarantee of protection for organic producers
(c) Fail to propose strict liability legislation for biotechnology companies for any damage their products cause
(d) Ignore the impacts of GM crops on the environment
(e) Suggest that a public register of sites where GM crops are grown will not be put in place
(f) Favour voluntary measures contained in an industry code of practice for the majority of ‘coexistence’ measures
(g) Set separation distances for oilseed rape and maize that will result in routine GM contamination of conventional crops
(h) Do not include allotment holders and gardeners – ie they will not be notified when a farmer intends to grow a GM crop
(i) Ignores beekeepers, putting honey at risk of GM contamination
(j) Reluctantly suggest that voluntary GM free zones are unlikely to work in practice

These are all major shortcomings which are apparent to all who read the DEFRA document.

We also wish to make the following additional and more detailed points:

1. DEFRA appears to wish to emphasise technical, economic and practicality considerations, while neglecting the concerns of UK citizens. We should not need to remind DEFRA that people are generally sceptical of the claimed benefits of GM crops; they want choice to be maintained, particularly so that they can avoid GM foods; and there is a natural desire for a precautionary approach to be adopted. peop;le clearly understand the precautionary principle better than the Government does. So there is little trust in either the government or industry to regulate GM crops and foods from a public interest perspective.

2. Like other organizations, we take issue with para. 25 of the ‘General Background’. Here the statement is made that: ‘Only crops assessed as having no harmful impact will be approved for release, and therefore coexistence measures are not required for safety reasons’. The implication in this statement is that no harm could possibly arise from the release and use of a GM crop or food because it has been assessed. We profoundly disagree with this statement on the basis that it is palpably untrue. GM crops and foods have indeed been subject to a partial (and some would say biased) risk assessment, DEFRA should admit that knowledge is incomplete and that some GM approvals are hotly disputed. This kind of statement also fuels public mistrust because people know full well that it is not possible to have such certainty.

3. We support Genewatch UK in its view that the 0.9% threshold as the target of coexistence measures is at odds with what the public is likely to welcome. In para. 28, the phrase ‘adventitious or technically unavoidable’, which should mean the presence of GM material is accidental and cannot be avoided, is equated with ‘reasonable steps’ and what is considered ‘realistic’. We are horrified that a threshold can be used in this way to facilitate contamination . We also know, through the honesty of jeremy Sweet, that the 0.9% threshold has absolutely no scientific basis to it; the figure was arrived at as a political fudge, and it helps nobody when it is held up as having some mystical significance.

4. There is no logic in DEFRA's preoccupation with "crops that are placed on the market" to the exclusion of other crops, such as those grown on allotments or in gardens. Gardeners and allotment holders have not formally been included as consultees or included in the stakeholder meetings concerned with developing the proposed coexistence regime. Therefore, this process has not been fair or reasonable. We remind DEFRA that allotment holders and gardeners do sell their produce at local shops. They also strive to avoid GM foods by growing their own produce, and many pride themselves on growing organically.

5. It is also illogical to exclude maize being grown for animal fodder from coexistence rules. The fodder being fed will be used in the production of a marketable product, such as milk or other dairy products. Several supermarkets are taking steps to remove GM ingredients from animal feed in conventional systems in recognition of the demands of their customers. If farmers want to feed non-GM fodder to their animals, they should not be expected to accept GM contamination from neighbouring farmers.

6. In the matter of sources of GM presence, it is widely known that contamination happens because of human error and poor quality control. Whilst it is not possible to put a figure on this, DEFRA has to recognise the potential for this and consider the implications for coexistence both in relation to efforts to control contamination from other sources and the need for monitoring or effectiveness.

7. We support other organizations in making the point that there are many assumptions in the document that are neither transparent, clearly stated, or scientifically examined. These include the assumptions:
• that seed thresholds will be agreed to be 0.3-0.5%. The threshold in seed will be very important, yet the implications of different levels has not been explored;
• that volunteers will not lead to significant gene flow between farms. The control of weedy beet populations will be an important factor in preventing contamination in neighbouring farms and the introduction of a GM weed beet population. Whilst pollen flow may not be important in relation to contamination of the vegetative beet used for sugar production or fodder, it is important in relation to the production and extension of weedy beet.
• that transport is not an important source of contamination between farms. Research with beet has shown that seed movement can lead to movement of weedy beet to an extent that it may not remain on a farm.

8. Proposed coexistence measures and statutory separation distances. Here there are numerous uncertainties and assumptions. For example, it is assumed that requiring farmers to avoid contamination will be impracticable and onerous, yet there is little or no evidence to support such a conclusion. Whether GM farmers will follow codes of practice and whether the system to inform neighbours about their growing plans will work smoothly is completely unknown. Rather than waiting 2-3 years following commercial growing before monitoring of effectiveness begins (Annex B, para 75), we support calls for DEFRA to design a precautionary system based on a gradual introduction and close monitoring. This would follow the advice of the AEBC.

9. We note that DEFRA has consistently blocked attempts in Parliament to introduce a strict liability system; and in the consultation document it proposes an entirely unsatisfactory mixture of statutory controls and industry managed codes of conduct. The proposed system is a mish-mash of regulation and codes of conduct that looks cumbersome, expensive, prone to failure and unlikely to convince the public that their choice of non-GM products from UK agriculture will be preserved. Most disturbingly, the industry itself could be given the role of arbitrating over its own failings if the ‘voluntary redress charter’ is allowed. As GHenewatch has picturesquely put it, this would be like putting Dracula in charge of a blood bank.

10. A huge amount of public money is being wasted in developing coexistence measures for GM crops that appear to have very little future in the UK. We wonder what the Audit Commission view might be? The growing of GM crops (for whose benefit?) should not be subsidised by the public through testing and policing schemes dependent upon taxpayer support.

11. Redress for economic loss. We accept that there should be a statutory redress system of strict liability with no defenses (as an adapted option 3 para 165-196) that would be funded by a levy on GM seeds. Claims should be determined by an independent tribunal system. The level of the levy would be determined each year based on previous or outstanding claims and would be underwritten by the seed industry in situations where sales of GM seed did not meet the requirements. Under this system, farmers, gardeners, allotment keepers or others who have evidence of GM contamination could claim compensation for economic loss, including consequential loss of future business. The redeemable loss should not be restricted to the 0.9% level, but also compensate for lower levels of contamination if a crop was being produced for a particular market that demanded, say, a 0.1% level. In the case of allotment holders and gardeners, financial compensation could be claimed for loss of amenity and ability to produce non-GM vegetables. Those making claims would have to produce evidence that they had purchased non-GM seed, but the system should be simple and cheap to access.

12. However, because it is conceivable that GM farmers may abuse the system and manage their crops in ways which knowingly cause contamination and then pay the compensation, it is important that an element of punitive damages can be levied and compensation not restricted to direct economic losses. This latter point will be important to ensure that the system drives an effective on-the-ground coexistence system.

13. To facilitate the process and help learn from it, the GM seed industry would be expected to develop and maintain a full, detailed and open public register of where GM crops were being grown and by whom. When buying GM seed, farmers would inform the company where the seed was to be planted – information that they would require to police the system. The tribunal office would prepare an annual report giving details of cases, how contamination had arisen and whether there were any areas of concern that required action.

14. Under such a scheme, seed companies would have an economic imperative to ensure farmers followed their codes of conduct that would be specified in contracts. It is likely they would take a precautionary approach because of the economic costs of failing to do so. The GM seed companies could police and inspect the system and reclaim compensation costs if a farmer was shown to have been negligent. In this way, all costs of coexistence and redress for contamination would fall on the industry involved, not upon us as taxpayers. Strict liability would have the additional benefit of giving the public confidence that non-GM farmers would not suffer. Since the liability system would have statutory backing and be independently conducted, it would have greater public confidence than the voluntary redress system suggested in the consultation document.

15. In favouring the voluntary approach, DEFRA point to the costs of establishing a statutory system and its complexity. We do not accept that these costs will be high. If it is considered that a truly strict liability system is desirable, and will be used in conjunction with the growing of GM crops , then the costs overall would be much lower for the Treasury and higher for the GM seed industry.

16. A public register of GM crops is in our view quite fundamental if any GM crops are to be grown in the UK. The public has a "right to know", and secrecy or obfuscation will in the end damage the GM industry even further. Not only would a detailed register assist in the operation of the monitoring required under the Deliberate Release Directive, but it would also be a useful source of information should any environmental harm arise that could lead to claims for remediation costs under the Environmental Liability Directive. So it is not only co-existence that should be considered in this context. Maintaining a register would not be onerous to farmers as they complete detailed growing returns anyway. They would be supplying information on where GM crops were to be grown to seed suppliers and to the public -- and the costs would be borne by the industry.

17. Voluntary “GM-free” areas. Instead of resisting these popular demands, the Government should consider ways in which ‘GM-free’ zones could be established on a statutory basis -- and not just for neighbourhoods or groups of farmers working together. It is clear that many British counties and other local authority areas wish to be GM-free. Conditions on where GM crops could be grown could be imposed through the marketing consent process.


Those are our comments on the consultation document. We now make the following proposals in a constructive spirit:


1. DEFRA will only authorise a GM release into the environment where it is advised (in writing, with full legal liability accepted) by ACRE and other consulted advisory bodies that the crop "is not capable of causing harm to human health or the environment."

2. DEFRA will make Environmental Prohibition Orders for all GM plantings, prohibiting the plantings unless the responsible party can show that there are no other plantings of related varieties within 6 km of the planting site. (Separation distances measured in metres are clearly inadequate, and must be greatly increased.) EPOs will be brought in for all protected landscapes, including National Parks, SSSIs, SACs, Nature Reserves, etc, on the basis that any GM plantings in those areas would threaten biodiversity and ecology. Environmental Protection Act and Cartagena Protocol can be adduced here. We also believe that there should be EPOs creating "exclusion zones" or "cordons sanitaires" around the borders of protected areas.

3. Particularly in areas of small-scale farming, where there is a close juxtaposition of holdings operated on organic and conventional lines, and where local ecological and climatic conditions dictate, DEFRA will impose on-farm measures on a case-by-case basis where a farmer proposes to plant a GM crop. These management measures may include on-farm isolation distances, buffer zones, installation of pollen barriers down-wind, and prohibition of plantings of related non-GM varieties for 2 or more years following the harvesting of the GM crop.

4. DEFRA will insist that a farmer proposing to plant a GM crop cooperates with all neighbours within 10 km of the planting site and informs them regularly on designated dates of sowing plans, precise characteristics of the GM variety proposed, anticipated flowering time, spraying regimes, harvesting date, and biosecurity measures in place to avoid cross-pollination and accidental spillage of GM seed.

5. DEFRA will insist that applicants for GM crop plantings demonstrate that they have taken due account of local policies approved by County Councils, National Park Authorities and other tiers of local government. Where there is a clearly expressed democratic wish for a county or region to remain GM-Free, GM plantings, if they go ahead, could result in civil disorder and high costs incurred in policing, prosecution of protestors etc. Neighbours may also suffer incidental economic damage. Applicants for GM plantings must indemnify the government and local authorities against all costs that may be involved in these actions.

6. Being mindful of the current trend for the use of contractors and Machinery Rings in drilling, crop management and harvesting, and seed transport onto and off the farm, DEFRA will insist that all machinery which comes into contact with GM material and which subsequently moves off-farm is cleaned, sprayed and sterilized to at least the same standards as used in approved seed trials, accredited seed lots etc. Machines must also carry biosecurity signs when transporting GM materials off-farm, and they must carry biosecurity labels indicating the dates of contact with specified GM varieties. This is all necessary to avoid unintended spillages of seed/mud mixtures and use of machines, for example, on a GM maize field on one day and on an organic maize field twenty miles away on the next day. Spillages on roadways are also well known (cf NIAB Report / Jeremy Sweet correspondence), leading to adventitious occurrences of GM plants on highway corridors. Even more onerous measures might be employed on machines operating in protected areas (eg National Parks). The GM crop applicant must take responsibility for informing machinery contractors of these measures, must ensure that all biosecurity rules are followed, and must carry all costs involved.

7. DEFRA will insist that all GM plantings are notified to the general public through press notices, farm-gate notices etc at least three months ahead of the proposed planting date. The fields concerned must be clearly identified through the use of six-figure grid references. If more than 100 local residents protest against the planting, the applicant must call a public meeting and must take due account of the feelings of the meeting. If the meeting requests that the proposed GM crop planting should be abandoned, DEFRA may refuse to authorise it.

8. Being mindful of the need for careful monitoring of biosecurity, GM crop management procedures, and the risks of cross-pollination, DEFRA will impose a monitoring regime appropriate to the GM crop proposed. The applicant will be required to carry all costs of the monitoring work.

9. Prior to GM crop planting, every applicant will be required to submit a detailed site-specific Environmental Impact Assessment. Guidelines will be published by DEFRA. On receipt of the EIA, DEFRA will decide whether the risks inherent in the proposed GM crop planting are low enough to justify approval.

10. All farmers and contractors involved in the planting, management and harvesting of a GM crop, and in the transport of GM materials off-farm, will be required to complete, in advance, an approved training course in GM crop management. Documentation relating to personal accreditation will have to be produced.

11. Applicants for GM crop plantings will be required to exchange information with neighbours, local authorities, DEFRA and the general public relating to crop characteristics and health and safety assessments, associated herbicides and management matters at least three months prior to planting. This information will be held on a public register, and DEFRA will be mindful of objections that may be raised relating to scientific deficiencies, safety concerns etc.

12. DEFRA will ensure that advisory services are available to farmers proposing to plant GM crops, and to other farmers who might be affected economically, and the seed developers will be expected to contribute to the funding of these services.

13. Before DEFRA gives any consent for a GM crop planting, it will wish to be satisfied that the farmer concerned has adequate liability insurance in place against consequent financial losses by neighbours and other farmers, and against consequential losses incurred by the Government or local authorities. DEFRA will wish to see documentary evidence of this liability insurance.

14. DEFRA will require a written management plan designed to minimise the risk of GM contamination by farm animals and wild animals
including roe deer, birds, bees, foxes and badgers. In particular, they will seek assurances that no farm animals will be allowed onto land used for GM crops within three years of the date of GM seed planting.

15. DEFRA will look for on-farm measures to ensure that ramblers and riders will not have access to GM crop fields in the years of planting and harvest and for three years thereafter. Density and usage of footpaths is important here. Could also be health / allergy effects for sensitive individuals. Seeds on muddy boots, horses' hooves, pollen on clothing? (See the article in Country Walking magazine: "Walkers in GM scare" - Sept 2003).

16. DEFRA will seek written guarantees that there is complete segregation of GM and non-GM seed stocks at the silos of the seed supplier. This is in recognition of the fact that in the United States it is now impossible to guarantee the purity of maize seed supplied to conventional or organic farmers. The recent GM rice fiasco has given a stark reminder of this.

17. DEFRA will not tolerate any secrecy in the planting of GM crops, since this erodes public confidence and creates concern. DEFRA will maintain a public register of all GM crop plantings in the UK, including six-figure grid references for fields used, farmers name and full address, seed owner's full name and address, and monitoring and crop management history etc. All records submitted in support of planting applications, and all other paperwork, will also be on the public record and will be available for inspection by interested parties.


We will be grateful if you will record this as a protest against the DEFRA proposals and as a set of positive suggestions as to the way forward. Please confirm receipt of our submission, and keep us informed of an developments from this point on.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Brian John
for GM Free Cymru

Address for contact:

Trefelin, Cilgwyn, Newport, Pembs SA42 0QN

Tel 01239-820470