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19 Feb 01 - GMO - Victory for our 'name GM sites' campaign

19 Feb 01 - GMO - Victory for our 'name GM sites' campaign

By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Editor

Independent- Monday 19 February 2001

All GM crops growing anywhere in Europe will have to be made public under a new EU law agreed after secret British sites were exposed.

The new law, finalised last week, will force the Ministry of Agriculture to change its policy and reveal precisely where modified crops are being cultivated.

However, in a separate development, Nick Brown, the Minister of Agriculture, is refusing to disclose which British farms have been hit by BSE .

The new GM law - approved by the European Parliament on Wednesday and agreed by governments and the EU Commission after three years of hard negotiations - imposes the toughest rules on growing GM crops in the world. And it lays down that every EU country will have to place details of the sites of all crops, whether commercial or experimental, on a public register.

The register was proposed by the European Parliament, but opposed for many months by the Commission and some governments, led by Britain. Negotiations between these parties broke down over the issue last autumn, throwing the entire law into danger.

But it was revealed in October that top-secret GM trials were under way in five English counties, even though the Government had promised that all of them would be made public. They were so hushed up that even Michael Meacher, the Environment minister, was kept in the dark.

Mr Brown subsequently published some details of the sites on his ministry's website. And, in the succeeding weeks, Mr Meacher persuaded him to accept the planned EU registers.

David Bowe, Labour MEP for Yorkshire - who conducted the negotiations which led to the law - said the registers should be in operation by next year: "The public has a right to know."

Tim Yeo, the shadow Agriculture Minister, praised The Independent on Sunday's "tenacity" in getting the Government to drop its opposition to the disclosures, which had long held up agreement on the law. "You have been the only newspaper that has championed this terribly important cause, and you can now take credit for the result," he said.

Patrick Holden, the director of the Soil Association, called the disclosure provisions "really excellent news". "There is no question that, without The Independent on Sunday, we would not be where we are now," he said.

But, even as the provisions were agreed, new evidence emerged of the Ministry of Agriculture's secrecy. It has long kept a list of the farms whose cattle have suffered from BSE. There are now 35,146 names on it, covering about half of all British beef-producing herds, but the ministry refuses to reveal their names even to help safeguard meat. Richard Guy, who runs the Real Meat Company and promises customers that his beef comes from herds that have never had a case of BSE, wrote to the ministry asking if he could double check his suppliers against its list.

But the ministry replied that the information could not be disclosed because it "was collected for animal health purposes and not to identify to the public those farms on which BSE has been found".

Mr Guy said: "This is the same old cover-up." He understood that the information was collected to give "the public the opportunity to act on such information to avoid, or not, produce from the known source. I find it hard to believe it was ever meant to provide highly secretive lists for the ministry to keep locked away."

* Geoffrey Lean's reporting of the GM crops issue has been nominated in the "Scoop of the Year" category in this year's British Press Awards.