An official inquiry set up after areas of the British countryside were inadvertently sown with GM-contaminated oil seed rape, has failed to discover the source of the contamination.

In May 2000 it was discovered that hundreds of British farmers had sown thousands of acres with GM-contaminated seed imported from Canada. The GM seed – which was also planted in a number of other European countries – was not approved by the Europe Union for release into the environment. The crops were eventually destroyed, and Advanta, the firm that sold the seed, agreed to compensate farmers.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) held an inquiry into how the GM seed came to be contaminated. It concluded that “there is no evidence of any impropriety on the part of Advanta Canada, its third party processor or the Canadian Seed Growers’ Association” and it “was unable to determine the source of the adventitious trait present in the seed lots in question. Because this issue is not considered a regulatory matter in Canada, the CFIA seed programme considers it closed at this time.”

Advanta has always claimed that the contamination occurred through cross-pollination.   The Canadian oil seed rape (canola) was specifically grown to produce non-GM seed. Under Canadian regulations a 800 metre separation distance must exist between GM and conventional oil seed rape. According to the Canadian government this regulation was observed. The separation distance in the UK for GM oil seed rape grown in the GM farm scale evaluations is only 50 metres.

Environmental pressure group Friends of the Earth (FoE) has criticised the report. GM campaigner Pete Riley commented: “Two years after thousands of acres of British countryside were planted with illegal GM crops, the authorities still don’t know how it happened. What steps are the biotech industry and the governments of Canadian and the UK taking to ensure it doesn’t happen again? This report is a complete whitewash.

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“It is likely that this contamination was caused by cross-pollination from neighbouring GM crops. As the nearest GM crops were at least 800 metres away this raises questions over the effectiveness of separation distances between GM and conventional crops – particularly in the UK, where they are only 50 metres for oil seed rape. The whole fiasco demonstrates once again the risk these crops pose to conventional and organic farmers, and provides yet more evidence for banning GM crops from being comercially grown in the UK.”