LONDON -- Biotechnology company Aventis admitted Monday that it had grown genetically modified sugar beet without permission at two trial sites in the United Kingdom.
The company told the UK environment ministry that during routine destruction of the crops, it discovered a "tiny" amount - 0.5 percent - of unauthorized genetically modified (GM) beet line.
"Aventis informed the government after discovering a background level of a second, unauthorized, herbicide tolerant GM beet line as part of the routine destruction of the crops," said a statement issued by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.
"The company used this batch of GM seed at 10 small trial sites in England this spring. Only two of the sites showed evidence of the unauthorized seed. The trials are now finished and the sites have been cleared of all GM plant material," continued the statement.
The ministry referred the matter to the Advisory Committee on Releases in to the Environment, which has advised that there is no threat to human health or the environment. But Aventis, already at the center of a public hearing over GM crops, faces investigation and possible prosecution by the government's Central Science Laboratory.
The laboratory performs statutory inspections of trial sites and acts as the government's enforcement team on any releases of GM crops. Its preliminary report into this latest incident is expected next week.
Genetic modification involves altering an organism's genetic code or DNA in a way that does not occur naturally by mating or natural recombination. Genetic engineering allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, sometimes between non-related species.
This technology is routinely used in thousands of research laboratories worldwide and has resulted in many new products and processes such as industrial enzymes and medicines such as insulin and vaccines.
But the use of genetic modification in agriculture and the food industry is currently the focus of intense public and political debate.
Consumers, environmentalists and some scientists worry about risks to human health and the environment. Among their concerns are that GM crops could cause toxic or allergenic effects and large scale elimination of indigenous agricultural and natural species.
For that reason, the UK government has embarked upon the Farm Scale Evaluations, a three year program, which will provide information about what effects growing and managing GM crops might have on wildlife.
But the 10 trial sites set up by Aventis were not part of these evaluations. "This research is over and above the existing regulatory framework, which has already ensured that these GM crops are safe for human health and the environment," said yesterday's ministry statement.
Aventis GM beet trial falls under the UK's small scale research and development consent known as Part B. Part B rules stipulate that the crop, in this case GM beet, is not allowed to flower, therefore no GM pollen can be produced and no cross pollination can take place.
Part B consent also means that the crop cannot enter the food or feed chain, and trial sites are monitored intensively for two years.
Aventis is currently in the middle of public hearing into its application to have Chardon LL, a GM fodder maize, added to the UK's National Seed List. Inclusion on the list would allow Chardon LL to be grown commercially but environmental group Friends of the Earth has challenged the application.
Last week the company was warned that its application may fail if it refused to give evidence at the public hearing.
"The Friends of the Earth representation contains a considerable number of questions in relation to the soundness of any potential decision to add Chardon LL to the national list, which as a straightforward matter of fact are in no way at all answered in the Aventis written representations," said Alun Alesbury, the senior Barrister chairing the hearing.
Alesbury said that unless he could be persuaded that all objections not covered by Aventis' written submission are irrelevant, then "I will have had to report to Ministers that there are numerous points of objection which were not addressed in Aventis' original submissions and which have not been answered at all by evidence at the Hearing."
"Unless Ministers are persuaded that all points are irrelevant, how can they [Aventis] conceive that Ministers can make a decision favourable to their application," he continued. Aventis should "think carefully on the stance they are adopting" or face the "almost inevitable consequences of that stance," said Alesbury.
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