We Broke the Law in Planting GM Trial Crop, Admits Minister; New Menu Rules Are a Recipe for Chaos, Says Restaurants Chief

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Byline: GABY HINSLIFF

THE future of genetically-modified crop trials was thrown into confusion last night after the Government was forced to admit some planting was carried out illegally.

Three trial fields of oilseed rape may now have to be ripped up and the planting of more winter crops could be delayed.

Friends of the Earth exposed the embarrassing technical error by mounting a legal challenge to the planting of four sites this autumn.

It said the credibility of the Government's GM trials was now 'in tatters' after what it called a 'gross abuse' of the rules.

Environment Minister Michael Meacher conceded yesterday that the Government would not fight the court case and blamed his officials for the mistake. He said: 'We are accepting that on this point we acted illegally. We acted in good faith and as soon as it became clear, we have moved to put it right.

'We did not get the legal technicalities right. It's obviously important that Governments should get the legal technicalities right.' The blunder arose when AgrEvo, which already had permission for trials of spring oilseed rape, applied to vary its licence to plant winter oilseed rape too in Nottinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Lincolnshire.

Officials granted the request.

However, Friends of the Earth argued successfully that the company should have made a new application for a separate licence - particularly since it involved extending the growing area and growing crops over a year not six months.

Mr Meacher said the Government would pull up the crops if ordered to do so by the court.

But he argued that the three fields should not be destroyed because AgrEvo had acted in good faith. A fourth due for planting this weekend will not now go ahead.

But Friends of the Earth said it would seek an urgent court ruling to dig up existing crops.

Campaigns director Liana Stup-ples said: 'How can they admit that these crops are illegal and then say "we are going to leave them in the ground?"

'This whole affair leaves the credibility of the farm scale trials in tatters and it will not stop here. How are the public expected to have any trust in the system when the Government breaks it own rules and then persists with the planting?

'Even when they admit they are wrong they are not prepared to do the obvious thing and give up the trials.' The four trials of winter oilseed rape were a 'dry run' for bigger experiments next year over 25 sites. It will be too late to replant them if they have to be dug up.

Mr Meacher insisted that need not delay research, adding: 'If they had to be dug up it is not of very serious consequence.' But Friends of The Earth claimed the programme could be held up by a year. Since this winter's trials were to find out whether the testing methods worked, Mr Meacher admitted it was possible that without them the results of next year's trials might be flawed. …