The UK government is planning to change the law to make it more difficult for the public to object to the commercial development of GM crops, according to environmental pressure group Friends of the Earth (FoE).

The group says that it received a leaked confidential note from the Department of Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (Defra) headlined “Draft Submission on Representation and Hearings”, which follows the public hearings now underway into the listing of the GM maize variety “CHARDON LL”. The hearings are being held because lawyers for FoE discovered the public’s right to demand them under the “Seeds (National List of Varieties) Regulations.

More than 200 individuals and groups have objected to the listing of CHARDON LL. More than 60 are giving oral evidence at the hearings, which restart in London today [Monday].

But FoE claims that Defra is now planning to change the law to prevent objectors from raising GM safety issues at such hearings. The change could be made before ministers have to decide on the listing of SHERIDAN (another GM forage maize), due around October 2002. The listing procedure is the only point in the commercial development of GM crops where the public have a legal right to raise key safety issues and other objections.

The Defra note admits that “any proposals to remove GM safety issues from the scope of National List representations and hearings will be criticised because it will seem that we are trying to silence GM objectors. However, we believe that an effective presentation strategy can be prepared in advance … A fully fledged presentation strategy will be prepared in consultation with the Communications Directorate, for clearance with Ministers.”

Defra has decided to: “Take administrative action to exclude from the hearings any consideration which are the responsibility of other bodies and subject to other legislative controls (eg. Gm safety – ACRE, Novel foods – ACNFP)” and “Give statutory effect to the above by amending the regulations so that any ‘person affected’ may make representations and be heard, but only on matters relevant to the criteria for National Listing.”

FoE GM campaigner Adrian Bebb said: “Yet another yowling GM cat has been let out of the bag. The government pretends to be neutral in this debate.  But once more we find that it is secretly planning to skew the system in favour of the biotech industry, and to take away the public’s right to raise objections to and concerns about the commercial development of GM crops.

“This shameful memo shows once again that only two things motivate the government on the GM issue, to deliver what their friends in the biotech business want, and to spin, spin and spin again in the forlorn hope that the public won’t notice what is going on.”

The FoE has published a copy of the memo at: