Published online 26 January 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.59

News

Farmer defies GM 'ban'

Environmentalists see red over maize harvest in formerly GM-free Wales.

Harrington planted two types of GM maize.Punchstock

In what may be the first example of direct action in favour of genetically modified (GM) crops, a farmer has defied the Welsh government by growing modified maize.

Farmer and agricultural consultant Jonathon Harrington says he grew small amounts of two kinds of GM maize on his farm near Hay-on-Wye, and also gave seeds to two local farmers.

The Welsh Assembly Government has declared the country to be a GM-free zone, but in the wake of Harrington's actions it admitted that it is powerless to enforce this declaration. For his part, Harrington says he took action in the face of the assembly's intransigence and unwillingness to discuss the issue.

"It became more and more worrying to me that the Welsh Assembly just didn't want to know. As I wasn't getting anywhere, I decided to take action," he told Nature News.

"The purpose of the exercise was to try and shake some sense into our political leaders."

Saboteur or saviour?

The maize grown by Harrington were two varieties of MON810, modified to be resistant to the European corn borer. Although this pest is not prevalent in Britain, it is a much bigger problem in Spain, where the modified maize is widely grown and where Harrington obtained his seeds.

MON810 maize is on the European Union's list of 'common varieties', meaning that it is legal for farmers to grow it.

"I took legal advice," says Harrington. "The advice was, as long as it was a variety on the common list it wasn't a problem. I don't believe I have done anything wrong. I'm trying to do British agriculture a favour."

Most of his modified maize has gone into silage, says Harrington. Some has been fed to sheep, but it is not clear whether these sheep will enter the human food chain, as they are breeding stock, he adds. Although the crop was harvested in October, the story has only recently received public attention in Britain.

Welsh environmental group Friends of the Earth Cymru condemned the farmer. Although he has not broken the law, some aspects of accounting for the GM crops may not have been followed and this may be actionable, said Haf Elgar, a campaigner with the group.

"We're very concerned by Jonathon Harrington's claims that he has grown a GM crop," she says. "We would urge the Welsh Assembly to investigate the situation."

A statement from the Welsh Assembly Government said GM crops could "undermine some of our achievements and future ambitions for Welsh agriculture".

"However, we cannot legally ban GM crops in Wales because we have to work within a European legal framework," the government notes.

Undercover action

Harrington says he informed "half a dozen people" of what he was doing, including someone from the Welsh Assembly, but admits he was afraid of "being raided by the loonies". There have been high-profile incidents in the United Kingdom in which protesters have torn up GM crops in field trials.

“Quite a number of farmers I know, they don't like anything that restricts their ability grow what crops they think are suitable.”

Dennis Murphy
University of Glamorgan

In 2003, Denis Murphy, a biotechnology researcher at the University of Glamorgan, warned that a GM-free Wales was not practically feasible.

"Quite a number of farmers I know, they don't like anything that restricts their ability to grow what crops they think are suitable," he told Nature after news broke of Harrington's actions.

He added that the idea of a GM-free Wales was "a political gimmick" and would be meaningless if GM crops were grown just over the border in England.

"I think in the future, when the varieties become really useful to farmers [in Britain], they may have to reconsider," he said. 

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