Researchers plead for secret sites to avoid anti-GM protestors

Posted by Isobel Drake on 29th July 2008

GM food trials

Scientists in the UK are calling for the Government to allow them to keep sites for GM crop trials a secret in the wake of continued vandalising of crops by protesters.

Under current European Union rules the sites of GM trials are required to be disclosed to the public and this has led to most of the 54 sites used in Britain since the turn of the century being damaged at some stage by protesters.

Professor Howard Atkinson of Leeds University, whose pest-resistant potato study was destroyed in June, is asking the government to consider imposing similar rules to Canada, whereby small trials are allowed to proceed in secret. Professor Atkinson advised that the cost of security was now higher than the cost of the trial in some instances and was finding it harder to justify security costs to “protect against zealots”.

The destruction of the potato research was very disheartening for Leeds University, with the project not actually initiated for commercial purposes. “The wanton destruction of crops at the University farm is extremely disappointing. The publicly-funded research was being done for scientific purposes, not commercial gain. It was only authorised by government after detailed evaluation by an expert committee with a public consultation process,” the University advised in a statement. “We understand that public interest in the issue of transgenic crops is high and welcome debate on such science, particularly in the context of discussions on future food security. Our academics have an important role in ensuring that any debate is based on scientific facts rather than speculation and these crop trials supported that work.”

Wayne Powell, Director of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany in Cambridge (NIAB), was engaged in a trial of a crop which had the potential to benefit banana growers in Uganda. It was disrupted by protesters last year and has led to greater and very costly security. “We now have 24-hour security, we have fences around materials,” he said at a media briefing yesterday. “The consequence of not having field trials is you reject these crops before society has had a chance to consider the benefits.”

Anti-GM campaigners, such as Claire Oxborough of Friends of the Earth, are looking for trials to be cancelled altogether. “Friends of the Earth would have deep concerns about making them secret because of the potential risks that they pose,” she told the BBC. “We need transparency – we need to know where these field trials are taking place so that farmers and the public can be adequately protected.”

Legislation in the US is much less restrictive than in Britain, with about 1000 trials a year currently taking place. In the UK, meanwhile, only one application has been submitted this year, well below the 20 to 30 that was recorded at one stage in the late nineties.