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Environmental Liability – Make GMOs a special case

Immediate release (12 Feb 2007)

Calls to: Pete Riley GM Freeze 07903 341 065; Clare Oxborrow Friends of the Earth 07712 843 211; Becky Price GeneWatch UK 07949 396328

Genetically Modified Organisms should be made a special case when new rules on liability for environmental damage are put in place in the UK say a group of environmental organisations [1].

The UK is due to implement the European Environmental Liability Directive in the UK this year and public consultations are currently underway. The group are calling upon UK politicians to support their proposals to strengthen the UK’s environmental liability laws for GMOs to go well beyond the baseline laid down in the Directive. If the Government’s current proposals are implemented, biotech companies are unlikely to be held responsible for any damage to wildlife caused by their GM crops.

Under the EU Directive any company or organisation responsible for causing harm can be held liable for cleaning up the environment or taking compensatory action if the damage cannot easily be reversed. The release of GMOs into the environment is one of many activities covered by the Directive. The four nations of the UK will each introduce their own regulations.

In a briefing [2] sent to Members of Parliament this week, the organisations set out their case for making GMOs a special case compared with other activities covered by the Directive because:

  • The nature of the risks from GMOs is very different from other activities: GMOs are living and able to multiply in the environment.
  • The range of species and habitats covered excludes most areas where GMOs are likely to be grown such as farmland.
  • Scientific knowledge about GMOs and their impacts is limited and unexpected results have occurred already.
  • The permit system for GMOs is not location specific and they could be released anywhere across the countryside.
  • The impact of GMOs may take longer than the 30 year liability time limit specified in the Directive.
  • Liability does not extend to laboratory GM animals, plants and microbes which could escape and cause harm to the environment.

The organisations are calling for the Regulations in England to:

  • drop the defence that allows exemption from liability if a company hold a consent to release a GMO (the “permit defence”).[3]
  • drop the defence that allows exemption from liability if the scientific opinion at the time of the release of the GMO was that it was safe for the environment (the “state of knowledge defence”).
  • make GMO consent holders not farmers strictly liable.
  • extend the liability time limit for GMOs to 75 years.
  • extend the scope of the areas covered by the Regulations to cover all countryside and all water bodies.
  • make environmental liability insurance compulsory.

Commenting, Pete Riley from GM Freeze said:

As things stand Defra has indicated that they intend to only implement the Directive to the lowest possible standards. This would mean millions of acres of countryside and hundreds of species would not be covered for harm caused by GMOs and other environmental damage. GMOs have to be made a special case because they can reproduce themselves and damage may take years to become apparent. We believe that Parliament would be widely applauded if they extended the scope of GMO liability as we have proposed as this would ensure that biotech companies would bear the full cost if their GMOs went wrong once released.

Becky Price (GeneWatch UK) said:

We are very concerned that neither the Government nor the biotech industry has convinced the public that GM crops are desirable and yet tax payers will have to foot the bill if damage is caused to ‘protected’ species such as the brown hare or the red squirrel.


Calls to Pete Riley GM Freeze 07903 341 065.
Clare Oxborrow Friends of the Earth 07712 843 211.
Becky Price GeneWatch UK 07949 396328.

1. Genewatch UK, GM Freeze and Friends of the Earth.
2. Download document here.
3. The EU Liability Directive allows exemption from liability if the activity causing their environmental harm has been authorized by the authorities. Thus a GMO Experimental or Commercial Release Consent for a particular GMO would mean that harm caused would not caught by the Directive. This is known as the “permit” defence. In the consultation for England Wales and Northern Ireland, The Welsh Assembly Government has indicated that they wish to drop the permit defence for GMOs.