Another Biotech Blunder in the UK


\GM trials ruined by rogue gene strain
Paul Brown, environment correspondent
Friday August 16, 2002
The Guardian

Seed sown in GM trials over the past three years has been contaminated with
controversial antibiotic genes which went undetected by government

Embarrassed officials admitted yesterday that there had been a "serious
breach" of regulations and that the seed company, Aventis, was under
investigation and could be prosecuted if found to have broken licence

Although company executives could face up to five years in jail and
unlimited fines, the government none the less has a PR disaster on its

The joint statement by the Scottish Executive and the Department for
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs admitted there had been a complete
failure of its regulatory system which failed to detect the contaminated
seed despite many "paper" inspections, meaning it had simply accepted
Aventis's word.

The government said yesterday it was investigating its own failures and may
overhaul the entire regulatory system.

It said the entire crop, which is about to be harvested, would be destroyed,
and that there was no danger to public health even though the 2.6% of rogue
genes found were antibiotics.

Critics have repeatedly called for antibiotic genes to be phased out amid
evidence that GM plants and weeds of the same species readily swap genes.
This is a particular problem with oilseed rape, which has relatives growing
wild in hedgerows.

Antibiotic genes are controversial because of the danger of gene transfer to
bacteria in animals and humans, who could then develop immunity to common
life-saving antibiotics.

The government said Aventis, not its own inspectors, had found the
contamination and had notified authorities.

It is unclear whether the contamination occurred from accidental mixing of
two types of seeds or cross-fertilisation of two different GM crops.
A Scottish Executive spokesman said: "Aventis has been given very strong
advice to make sure this doesn't happen again. And we have called on the GM
inspectorate to investigate and see if legal action should be taken against
the firm.

"This is a very serious breach of regulations which shows there could be
problems with how Aventis puts together rape seed for GM trials."
No one at Aventis was available for comment yesterday.

The contaminated fields are in Aberdeenshire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire,
Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Wiltshire, Warwickshire, and Worcestershire. The
seeds were also sown at three trial sites in England in 1999, and at six in

The find comes days after the government launched a "public debate" on the
future of GM crops in Britain as the three-year crop trials draw to a close.
The tests aimed to assess the impact of GM crops on the countryside.
The fact that contaminated seeds have grown undetected throughout the trial
will be hard for Margaret Beckett, the environment secretary, to explain
away as she tours the country this autumn.

It also begs the question whether the last batch of oilseed rape due to be
planted this autumn to end the trials is also suspect. Aventis has been
asked to reassure the government before planting.

Friends of the Earth called yesterday for an immediate halt to the outdoor
testing of GM crops. It said that before planting, the government must carry
out a full investigation and ensure there is no repetition, guarantee that
winter oilseed rape seed is not contaminated, and publish results.

Friends of the Earth's Adrian Bebb said: "This is yet another biotech
blunder from the GM industry. How can we trust them to produce our food if
they cannot even run a GM test site? It is clear Aventis are incompetent and
should not be allowed to experiment with our countryside or our food
anymore. It beggars belief that the government's own inspectorate visited
Aventis in April but did not uncover this contamination."

Contrary to government comments, antibiotic-resistant genes can provide
immunity to the important antibiotic gentamicin, which is used to treat
life-threatening illnesses such as meningitis, he added.

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