Somerset GM contamination

March 2011

In December 2008, the UK Government announced that unauthorised GM oil-seed rape (OSR) had been found growing in Somerset.

The offending grain received EU approval for import, food and animal feed use in 2005 providing the handlers had been given appropriate plans for eradicating any volunteer GM OSR plants which could arise.

The contamination was found in a small trial field of a new non-GM variety of OSR shipped from a Monsanto seed production farm in Idaho. It was found to be contaminated with about five GM seeds in every 10,000. This doesn't sound like a lot, but nevertheless an adjacent OSR trial crop was found to have been contaminated at a measurable level of one in 10,000.

Regulators have decided to keep the location of the problem confidential. It was felt that the low level of the contamination did not justify publication of precise identifiers of the affected fields. Their stated priority was to protect the farmers involved, who had no intention of growing GM and had no way of knowing their crops were contaminated. The farmers are justifiably concerned that their reputation and land value will be compromised.

The illegal seed is a Roundup Ready strain which will survive routine glyphosate-based weed-control treatments. OSR seed is known to be able to persist in soil for at least a decade. Gene pollution from stray survivors can spread by pollen and seed due to wind, wildlife and farming activities. In areas where glyphosate forms the dominant weed-control system, these factors can combine to lead to escalating gene contamination.

What started as a very small level of rogue seed nevertheless brought about contamination at one-fifth of its source-level simply by pollination. The GM construct in the contaminating OSR includes viral DNA suspected of generating genomic instability which could lead to unpredictable future mutants. Add to this that the offending OSR was created using a GM Agrobacterium bacterial vector which may still be present in the plants and could promote horizontal gene transfer. When future spread of the novel DNA to other plants and to the soil ecosystem by seed-plus-pollen-plus-horizontal gene transfer are factored in, the problem could become endemic.

GM Freeze made a huge effort to obtain the map references of the contaminated fields. It's view is that farmers, gardeners, allotment holders, and local council environmental control officers need to be made aware so that they can act to contain the GM plants. Like the grain-handlers, unless landowners are alerted to look out for oilseed rape plants which have survived spraying with Roundup and are made aware of what steps are needed to remove them, the problem could escalate. In light of the recent Court of Justice ruling in Germany that honey containing GM pollen is a GM product and needs authorisation and labelling before it can be marketed, bee-keepers are especially at risk. They could find themselves, not only with unsellable honey and contaminated hives, but charged with having spread the contamination.

Unfortunately, GM Freeze was unsuccessful this time, but is aware of a wide range of important questions which DEFRA's intransigence may prevent being answered: for example, are measures in place to ensure there are no GM seed remaining in the soil, how close were the plants in which cross-contamination occurred, have lessons been learned to prevent a repeat in the future?

GM Freeze intends to monitor DEFRA's efforts to keep track of seed privately imported into the UK, and which might be contaminated.


The bigger picture here is that there has been a regulatory failure and that the government is protecting Monsanto at the expense of the people it represents: if Monsanto damages the business, reputation and land-values of UK farmers, Monsanto must be made to compensate them. You might ask your MP to start suggesting DEFRA set a precedent in favour of UK farmers.

You might also think of supporting GM Freeze which is doing so much to combat the constant GM threat on our behalf (including commissioning expensive legal representation). Check out

  • Scientists Discover New Route for GM-gene 'Escape', Institute of Science in Society Report 2.03.11
  • No to GM Oilseed Rape GT73, Institute of Science in Society Report 22.09.04
  • Tribunal keeps GM contamination secret, GM Freeze Release, 10.03.11
  • Fighting Fund Appeal – GM oilseed rape contamination in Somerset, GM Freeze Updates 28.10.10 and 15.02.11
  • Concern over GM contamination site,
  • Stephanie Bodoni, HONEY made Close to Modified Crops May Need Regulatory Approval, Bloomberg, 9.02.11
  • Commission's marketing approval for G%73 oilseed rape and measures recommended for consent holder to take in event of spillage, Times Higher Education, 6.09.05
  • Unapproved GM Found in UK Conventional Oilseed Rape Trial, M2 Presswire 19.12.08,, 23.12.08

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