C Kameswara Rao

Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education

Bangalore , India


The European Union (EU) has approved Monsanto’s MON 810, a genetically engineered (GE) maize tolerant of the European corn borer, for cultivation and use as farm animal feed and placed it on its list of  'common varieties', meaning that it is legal for farmers to grow it in all the EU countries.  The European Food Safety Authority’s GMO Panel, even in a recent assessment, considers that MON 810 maize and its products used as food and feed are as safe as traditional maize and its products.  However, France , Austria , Hungary , Luxembourg and Greece have banned MON 810, followed by Germany in April 2009, the only GM crop permitted until then in the country.  The EU has now proposed to "reflect" on Germany's decision, as such a ban contravenes the EU’s stated policy.


While there is no outright ban on the cultivation of MON 810 in the United Kingdom (UK), the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) voted to keep Wales free from all GE crops.


In January 2009, the news that Jonathon A Harrington, who farms near Hay-on-Wye, Powys, in Wales, ( UK ), had grown two varieties of MON 810 maize on his farms and passed the seeds onto other farmers has upset the environmental activists no end.    


Harrington chose two varieties of MON 810 from the EU’s approved list, obtained the seed from Spain and grew them on his farm.  In October 2008 Harrington harvested the crop, which has gone into silage and fed to sheep.

Harrington described his action as a reaction to the virtual ban of even EU approved GE crops by the WAG and as a direct action in favour of GE crops, to ‘try and shake some sense into our (Welch) political leaders.’  Harrington defended his under cover action on that he was afraid of ‘being raided by the loonies’, in the face of high-profile incidents in the UK in which protesters have torn up GM crops in field trials.


Friends of the Earth Cymru, the Welsh environmental wing, condemned Harrington’s action and ‘as some aspects of accounting for the GM crops may not have been followed and so this may be actionable’, and urged the WAG to investigate the situation.  They charged that Harrington failed to register with the authorities, but Harrington claimed that as he was commercially growing only approved crops and not as a trial, he was not required to inform the authorities of the location.


Following Harrington’s comments on BBC Radio 4's Today programme in January 2009, the WAG admitted that it could not legally ban GM crops, but had a ‘restrictive GM crop policy’.

Nevertheless, officers of the Local Trading Standards Service quickly acted obtaining a Magistrate’s authority to confiscate some maize seeds, two computers, Harrington’s diary from 2008, some business records and various other materials.  The Powys Council said it had followed up ‘numerous complaints concerning cross contamination and crops being fed to stock’.


A recent BBC report (August 5, 2009) informs that the Powys Council’s Trading Standards Service said that it fully investigated the charge that Harrington had passed GM crops onto other farmers to use as animal feed, but ‘had found no evidence that GM crops had been circulated to other farms’ in the Powys area.


Jonathon Harrington is now off the hook, and showed that EU approved GE crops cannot be banned by member countries of the EU, but the impact of his action elsewhere is to be awaited. 


Denis Murphy, a biotechnologist at the University of Glamorgan , said that ‘farmers don't like anything that restricts their ability to grow what crops they think are suitable,’ and so a ban on cultivation of GE crops, ‘a political gimmick’, is not feasible.


The attitude of the farmers in the rest of the world is no different, they grow what they think is best for them.  Excessive regulation and bans based on political and ideological grounds are a futile exercise as they do not deter the farmers in the long run.  Years before Harrington’s bold action, illegal Bt cotton was on the field in the Gujarat State of India , even before the Bt hybrids were legally commercialized in 2002.  Now there is a talk of illegal herbicide tolerant (HT) GE cotton, another gene stacked variety with Bt and HT genes and an illegal GE ring spot virus tolerant papaya in the Gujarat State . In several States in India , Bt cotton hybrids and events not approved for cultivation in specific regions are being illegally grown there, getting the seed from neighbouring regions where they are legal.   The Government of India has not taken any visible action against any of these regulatory infringements, which may encourage illegal cultivation of other unapproved GE crops now in development.   


August 7, 2009