July 27, 2009

Genetically altered crops grow ‘in secret’

A British university has quietly resumed growing genetically modified potatoes a year after protesters ripped up the crop, prompting calls of foul play.

The 400 plants in the field near Tadcaster, 15 miles east of Leeds and 10 miles west of York, were originally removed in May 2008, just weeks after planting, as a result of damage caused by unidentified environmentalists.

The project has been restarted without alerting the public, as is usual when such trials begin, prompting environmental groups to warn that local farms and residents could be at risk, The Daily Telegraph reported.

Britain's Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs maintains an original three-year permission to plant the potatoes remains valid, so the University of Leeds crops can be replanted without having to provide further notice.

Campaigners accused government ministers of trying to slip it under the radar, the Telegraph said.

The agency said the potatoes, genetically engineered by Leeds to be resistant to a microscopic parasitic worm called a nematode, will not be used for human or animal consumption.

The nematode costs British farmers more than $100 million a year.

The potatoes are being grown in a safe environment, with no risk of contamination, next to plants that will later be destroyed, the agency said.

The whole area will then be left fallow for several years after the trial, the agency said.

Government officials are being lobbied by biotechnology companies and support for genetic engineering is growing again as experts warn of food shortages caused by the growing population and climate change.

A Leeds University spokesman told the Telegraph the trial could boost industry and feed people.