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for a responsible, fair & sustainable food system

GM Freeze Calls for Openness and Transparency on GM Test Sites Failure to inform of 2009 GM potato site breaks the spirit of the law

Immediate release (29 Jul 2009)

Calls to Pete Riley 07903 341 065 or 0845 217 8992

GM Freeze has written to Hilary Benn [1], Defra Secretary of State, condemning his Department’s failure to update the GMO public register to include the one test site being grown in the UK this year as being “technically ‘legal’”, but not following “the spirit of the law and the intentions of those who drafted [the law]”, as well as being an attempt “to keep neighbouring farmers, landowners and local elected representatives in the dark”.

The letter points out that the latest web-based version of the public register of the locations of GM test sites would lead people to assume “that there had been no activity on the site since it was cleared in June 2008”.

Earlier this year the European Court of Justice ruled that the location of test sites must be made public and there are no grounds for keeping them secret [2].

The GM test site is at Branham in North Yorkshire and is run by the University of Leeds to test GM potatoes modified to repel Potato Cyst Nematode (PCN) (a pest of potatoes). In the letter to Hilary Ben GM Freeze point out that PCN problems arise from growing potato crops too frequently on the same land, allowing numbers to build up, and poor sanitation measures, which lead to cysts being transferred by vehicles between fields.

Today the group also published a briefing [3] on the need to keep the location of GM test sites open and transparent, which includes a detailed analysis of direct action against test sites in the UK since 2000. This analysis shows that 77% of test sites were unaffected by direct action, and most of the 23% which were affected continued and produced results.

The briefing also sets out the reasons why the number of GM test sites in the UK has dropped off so dramatically since the beginning of this decade:

  • GM herbicide tolerant oilseed rape and beet were not approved because of evidence of long-term harm to farmland wildlife, so no further tests were needed.
  • There is no market for GM crops because most supermarkets and manufacturers banned GM ingredients, so there was no reason to test new crops.
  • Monsanto abandoned plans for GM cereals because of lack of EU markets demonstrated by public rejection of GM products, so testing no testing was needed.
  • Bayer Crop Science halted work on GM maize even after being given approval by the UK government, so no further test sites were needed.
  • The biotech industry has not come forward with any insect resistant crops that would find a market in the UK because pest levels do not merit them, and therefore no testing has been required.
  • Modern applications of traditional plant breeding are progressing and producing good quality crop varieties without resorting to GM, eg marker assisted breeding.
  • All GM seed varieties which had been entered for National Listing were voluntarily withdrawn by the applicants because of lack of market demand, thus removing the need for further outdoor testing.
  • The National Assembly Government of Wales the Scottish Government have been strongly opposed to GM crops on the grounds that they do not fit with the model for developing farming in the two countries and no test site applications have been made.

Commenting Pete Riley of GM Freeze said:

Defra has been under pressure to make GM test sites secret since the 1990s. Their failure to update the Public Register to include the GM potato trial in Yorkshire might be technically legal, but it goes against the spirit of the law requiring public registers.

We want an assurance from Hilary Benn that Defra is committed to full openness. It is the very least the public should expect.

It’s unacceptable for the biotech companies and proponents to blame everyone else for their own failings. GM technology remains deeply unpopular, and the tiny number of test sites in the UK reflects the lack of a market for GM products and the failure of the early GM crops to pass environmental assessments.

The Government has already lost a decade of researching sustainable solutions to the problems facing farmers by hitching themselves to the GM band wagon. It’s time they cut loose and started promoting alternative approaches in research and development and to get them adopted by farmers.

Calls to Pete Riley 07903 341 065 or 0845 217 8992.

[1] Copy of letter available here.

[2] Available at

[3] GM Freeze report available here.