DUBLIN, Ireland - Monsanto's Irish program of trials for a genetically modified (GM) strain of sugar beet has suffered its third successive year of disruption. Environmental activists sabotaged two of its four trials in recent weeks, at Shanagarry, County Cork, and Arthurstown, County Wexford.

The resulting loss of data could delay commercial introduction of the strain, which is resistant to the glyphosate-based herbicide Roundup, by at least a year, said Patrick O'Reilly, Monsanto's Ireland country manager.

St. Louis-based Monsanto plans to introduce Roundup Ready sugar beet to the U.S. next year, he said. Pending European Union approval, which remains a thorny issue, the company may also introduce the strain to the French market at that time and to the UK one year later. But the strain will not be launched on the Irish market until 2003 at the earliest.

The GM food issue has generated as much heated debate in Ireland as in other European countries, but O'Reilly said the Irish public is more confused about than opposed to GM foods. "I think nobody has properly gauged public perception as yet," he said.

Genetic Concern, an umbrella group of environmental, consumer and agricultural organizations that has spearheaded opposition to the introduction of GM foods to Ireland, did commission an independent public attitude survey last year, but the findings were inconclusive. Its interpretation of the data differed from that of the agency it commissioned to conduct the research.

Monsanto plans to undertake its own survey shortly, but it is waiting for a government consultation on the deliberate release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to wind up first. "We would hope to do something before the year ends," O'Reilly said.

The consultation took the form of a debate between four stakeholder groups. The environment minister has received a report on the meeting, according to a spokesman at the department, and he plans to bring it to government next month. This is hardly likely to assuage the anti-GMO lobby, however. The 19 non-governmental organizations opposed to GMOs that were involved in the meeting withdrew from the process in June, claiming that the agenda was overly restrictive.

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