GM crops collapse before the law

The Government's support for research into GM technology comes at a cost to the legal process. Peter Roderick explains why. Peter Roderick is the legal officer at Friends of the Earth.

I will look back on 1999 as the year in which the British public said "no" to genetically-modified (GM) crops and foods. Consumers won't buy them, supermarkets won't sell them, and many farmers choose not to grow them. Biotech companies face financial crisis, and the world market in GM soya has collapsed.

Only the UK government and certain members of our scientific establishment are happy to support those whose billion-dollar mission is to control the world's food chain. But who would have thought that our government's support for GM food would extend to breaking the law on the industry's behalf? Tommy Archer and his fictional friends may have rampaged through the fields of Ambridge destroying plants, but are they the real law-breakers?

Friends of the Earth has been involved in three judicial review cases in the last year or so, as part of our campaign against the hasty introduction of GM crops. Each time, we've caught the Government acting unlawfully.

First, Guy Watson, an organic farmer in Devon, discovered GM maize being grown within cross-pollination distance of his farm, threatening his organic status. Friends of the Earth and others backed him in court. The Court of Appeal found the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (MAFF) had unlawfully ignored a requirement under legislation regulating commercialisation of crops. But the court would not order destruction of the crops, and the Government enacted retrospective legislation, pretending the law had never been broken. Activists dug the crops up, but the Director of Public Prosecutions dropped charges against these alleged perpetrators, fearing their defence may be valid.

The second case took place in March 1999. Friends of the Earth – with an unprecedented alliance of three MPs, one from each major party – brought a judicial review against MAFF. The ministry was accelerating commercialisation of GM crops behind the back of Parliament through the non-statutory "provisional seed certification scheme". This complex scheme cut about two years off the time legally needed for crops to come to market. Hours after we lodged papers with the court, MAFF had given in.

The third and most embarrassing defeat for the Government came in the summer. The GM industry and the Government have a voluntary agreement to conduct environmental evaluations of farm-scale trials of herbicide-tolerant GM crops. These trials are "spun" as being environmentally necessary when in fact they are an unscientific and damaging sop, designed to distract attention from the Government's unwillingness to oppose the US within the World Trade Organisation.

Rather than impose a moratorium on commercial growing – a move supported by over 90 organisations, including the Women's Institute, Maternity Alliance and the Local Government Association – the Government hit on the farm-scale trials as the best the industry would agree to. It hoped to pacify critics while allowing the industry to build up GM seed stocks – a smokescreen for commercialisation.

In July, the Government varied a GMO release consent granted to biotech company AgrEvo which allowed the sowing of winter oilseed rape trials, quadrupling the permitted acreage to an area about the size of Southampton. We believed this was illegal as the full consent procedure had not been followed. If it had been, there is a very good chance that the new Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment would have given its advice, rather than the old industry-linked committee.

The Government rejected our arguments, so on 20 August we began proceedings. By 10 September, the seeds had been sown and a week later the Government conceded we were right. These illegal crops are still growing at over 20 locations, and the Government refuses to dig them up.

I have learned a sad lesson from these cases. If you are the UK Government, committed to helping biotech companies come hell or high water, then the idea that "however high you be, the law is above you" is an uncomfortable inconvenience not to be taken too seriously. I cannot believe that the Government has fully understood the implications of this attitude. Humility before the forces of nature may be difficult for greedy multinationals and their political friends. But is it too much to expect respect for the rule of law?