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Britain approves GM corn


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United Kingdom
Genetic modification

LONDON, England -- The British government has given conditional approval to the commercial planting of genetically modified maize crops.

Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett made the announcement in the House of Commons Tuesday following recently completed three-year crop trials.

However, she said Britain should oppose the commercial cultivation of GM beet or oilseed rape anywhere in the EU.

"There is no scientific case for a blanket approval of all uses of GM," she told MPs. "But equally there is no scientific case for a blanket ban on the use of GM."

Beckett said she did not anticipate any commercial cultivation of GM maize for spring 2005, and that the government's agreement "in principle" was subject to conditions.

Licenses to grow GM maize would expire in October 2006, and any consent holders wishing to renew them would have to carry out scientific analysis during cultivation, she said.

Beckett said the crop must be grown under the same conditions as the trials. She also said commercial growers must continue to "carry out further scientific analysis to monitor changes in herbicide use on conventional maize."

The announcement follows a warning last week by a powerful committee of lawmakers that the government should not give the go-ahead to commercial planting of the weed-resistant GM maize, or corn.

The Commons Environmental Audit Committee said more research was needed because one of the pesticides used on conventional crops during the trials is set to be banned.

Critics said the effect of GM crops on the environment and wildlife must be compared with conventional crops using a less powerful pesticide. But the government said the crop trials were not invalidated by the banning of the pesticide atrazine.

Tuesday's announcement also comes amid a continuing row over the threat to organic farming from the new technology.

A study showing GM crops have contaminated two-thirds of conventional varieties in the United States has fueled calls from British MPs and environmental groups for the government to reconsider its policy.

The research by the Union of Concerned Scientists showed that after eight years of GM cultivation, 83 percent of conventional oilseed rape tested was contaminated with GM genes, as were half the maize and soybeans tested.

UK organic farmers warn the scenario, if repeated in Britain, would wreck their businesses.

Peter Melchett, policy director of the Soil Association, which certifies organic products, called the expected announcement "a black day for British agriculture.

"The government is jeopardizing the future integrity, safety and economic viability of British farming and food."

However, Britain's leading academic institution, the Royal Society, says there is no evidence to suggest food containing ingredients from GM plants is any less safe than conventional counterparts.

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