BioWorld International Correspondent

LONDON - The UK government gave the go ahead for the commercial cultivation of genetically modified maize - the first approval of a GM crop - but said it would oppose EU approval of GM oilseed rape and beet.

Making the announcement, Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett said GM seed companies would have to fund a scheme to compensate non-GM farmers if their produce is contaminated with GM material.

The decision follows the lengthy review of a massive body of evidence amassed from farm-scale evaluations of GM crops, a scientific review of their safety, a cost-benefit study, a public debate and an investigation into issues relating to the coexistence of GM and conventional and organic crops.

The approval of Chardon LL, a GM maize grown for animal feedstuff owned by Bayer CropScience, came despite the fact that a national public debate showed that people are generally uneasy about GM crops and food, and that there is little support for the early commercialization of GM crops in the UK.

Overall, the approval was given to GM maize because in the field-scale trials, it was found to be less environmentally damaging than conventional maize. However, the approval does not mean GM maize can be planted immediately, because of other requirements to be fulfilled relating to the pesticides used with the crop.

Nor does it open the floodgates to other GM approvals. Apart from saying it would oppose EU approval of beet and oilseed rape, the UK government said any future approvals would be on a case-by-case basis, with GM crops continuing to be strictly regulated.

Decisions on genetically modified organisms are made collectively by EU member states. From April, the EU will require food or animal feed with more than 0.9 percent GM content to be labeled accordingly.

That led to a further condition on the UK approval of GM maize - that farmers growing GM crops will be responsible for coexistence measures that are designed to ensure non-GM farmers do not breach the 0.99 percent threshold. The measures will have statutory backing.

Despite being told to foot the bill for a compensation scheme, the Agricultural Biotechnology Council (ABC), the UK body representing GM seed companies, welcomed the announcement. ABC's chairman, Julian Little, said the ABC would work with the government to develop coexistence practices.

The NFU, the national body representing farmers, was more cautious, saying coexistence measures must be in place before commercial planting takes place.

"It is important to develop measures to protect businesses that choose not to explore the GM option," it said.

At the same time the NFU is concerned that the high level of opposition to GM crops could expose farmers growing them to protests and demonstrations.

Similarly, Malcolm Grant, chairman of the Biotechnology Commission, which organized the public debate on GM crops, said, "I am concerned that there is no guarantee that the cultivation of GM crops will be delayed until a proper coexistence regimen has been finalized and a compensation scheme is in place for conventional and organic farmers whose crops are contaminated."

He added, "The question of liability in the event of environmental damage by GM crops remains unresolved."