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Tribunal Decides: Somerset GM contamination site should be kept secret

Immediate release (10 Mar 2011)

Calls to Pete Riley 07903 341 065

Following an appeal by GM Freeze, an Information Tribunal has upheld Defra’s decision to keep secret the location of a field of winter oilseed rape in Somerset contaminated with a GM trait in 2008. The Tribunal ruled that levels of contamination were too low to justify lifting the data protection rights of the landowner. [1]

We are disappointed in the ruling, but we note it depends on the low contamination level in this case,” said Pete Riley, Director of GM Freeze. “We strongly believe that neighbours should be informed of any GM contamination that might affect their fields, and we will be back to make this case again if another incident occurs.

Many organisations, including Somerset, Dorset and Devon County Councils, South Somerset District and all neighbouring District Councils, as well as GM Freeze requested the precise (six figure map reference) of the field after the contamination was announced by Defra in December 2008. [2] The contamination involved the herbicide tolerance gene GT73 developed by Monsanto, which gives crop plants tolerance to glyphosate (sold as Roundup). GM Freeze’s request was initially refused by Defra, and again after appeals to both Defra and the Information Commissioner.

The reason for refusing to release the map reference was that it was felt not to be in the public interest because the reputation and business of the landowner could be harmed if the location was disclosed. It was decided that this was not justified in view of the low level of contamination (0.05% or 5 plants in 10,000).

The decision of the Tribunal upheld this reasoning.

GM Freeze argued that the low level of GM contamination present had already spread to a neighbouring crop of spring oilseed rape (at 0.01%), and this could mean the GM trait had gone further and could persist in the area even if Roundup is not used. Glyphosate resistant weed volunteers could persist far into the future and then become a problem if the herbicide was used to try to control them, as they went on to produce more GM seed.

The Tribunal only dealt with one aspect of the case – the location of the contaminated field. However several other important issues have been raised but remain unanswered by Defra, including:

  • What was the reason for the Somerset trial crop? Was it a seed crop or for another purpose?
  • How did a spring oilseed rape crop come to be contaminated when winter and spring crops do not normally flower at the same time?
  • How far apart were the contaminated winter and spring oilseed rape crops?

Commenting Pete Riley of GM Freeze said:

We feel it was right to appeal, but we accept their decision of the Tribunal. However we remain firmly of the belief that all information about GM contamination incidents should be in the public domain so that landowners can be alerted to look out for weeds or oilseed rape plants on their land which survive being sprayed with Roundup. If any are not killed and allowed to flower the problem could escalate, and landowners may then have to resort to cocktails of weed killers or hand pulling to control them as is already happening where GM oilseed rape has been grown commercially.

This case has shown how easily unsuspecting farmers can become victims of GM contamination if regulations and procedures are not rigorously enforced. While we recognise that the farmer was an innocent party in this situation, s/he has the advantage over neighbouring landowners of knowing exactly where the contamination occurred.

This judgement was only based on the low level of GM present in this case and therefore does not preclude the release of information on the locations of contaminated GM crops in the future if higher levels of GM are present. In the meantime, we will be monitoring Defra’s efforts to keep a track of seed which might be contaminated that is privately imported into the UK for whatever reason.



[1] For the full Tribunal judgement click here.

[2] See GM Contaminated Oilseed Rape in Somerset: Freedom of Information Action Tribunal, 3 December 2010, available here.