29th February 2008:
If genetically modified organisms (GMOs) cause damage to our rare and protected wildlife, neither the state nor the biotech companies will have to clean up such damage under proposed new legislation to transpose the EU Environmental Liability Directive. Today, the UK government has launched its second consultation on the Directive. Despite more than a decade of public concern over the environmental impacts of GM crops the government has sent a clear signal to Biotech companies that they don't have to take responsibility for their products.
Under the proposals, biotechnology companies who cause damage to protected wildlife will be able to avoid responsibility by claiming that current science had not foreseen that specific damage and that they had been granted a permit to release the GMO into the environment. This reasoning will also be open for use by many other types of regulated businesses, for example the waste and chemical industries. In order for them to be held liable it will have to be shown that they broke conditions of their permit.
GeneWatch welcomed the proposals by the Welsh Assembly Government who in contrast to England will not allow such defenses. In the draft legislation for Wales, Biotech companies will be liable should protected habitats be damaged.
In the late 1990's the UK government was poised to allow commercial planting of GM crops. It was only through enormous public opposition that scientific studies were extended and the damage that could be caused by some GM crops was exposed. 'The current regulations governing the release of these GM crops do not require such extensive studies to be carried out and yet companies will be able to hide behind these regulations if something goes wrong' said Becky Price of GeneWatch UK. We strongly support Wales in its acknowledgement of the uncertainty around these crops and that they are upholding the 'polluter pays' principle, which is the aim of this legislation.
GeneWatch welcomes the extension of the European Directive to include some of England's most important nature protection areas, Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), in the scope of the draft regulations. However, Government proposals still exclude many of the UK’s rare priority species protected by Government action plans, including red squirrels, water voles and scarce farmland birds.
'The inclusion of SSSIs in this legislation is a fantastic step in the right direction, but there is a lot of scope for the Government to really support the existing environmental priorities in this country through this law, and only some of the opportunities are being used', said Sandy Luk GeneWatch’s legal expert on environmental liability .
For Further Information:
Sandy Luk, eppac limited: 07879 655779;
Becky Price, GeneWatch UK 07949 396328
Notes to editors:
Full details of the consultation are at; http://www.defra.gov.uk/corporate/consult/env-liability-regs/index.htm
The Environmental Liability Directive was passed, despite much controversy, as a result of a series of environmental disasters, starting with a dioxin leak from a herbicide plant in Seveso, Italy, in July 1976, and culminating in the Erica and Prestige tanker oil spills in 2000 and 2002, and a toxic zinc mine spill in the Doñana area of southern Spain in April 1998, which all had devastating effects on the environment and killed sometimes hundreds of thousands of birds, fish and other animals.
The Government's first consultation identified a number of measures in the Regulatory Impact Assessment, which, if introduced, would strengthen environmental protection and provide an overall benefit to society, for example the inclusion of SSSIs in the legislation. However, despite this the Government at the time was opposed to all such measures , as it favoured a so-called 'minimum implementation approach'.
Currently, 20% per cent of land designated as a SSSI in England is classified as being in unfavourable condition by Natural England. In addition, 35% is said to be unfavourable but recovering. Some of the main reasons for the adverse condition of SSSIs include overgrazing, moor burning, drainage and water pollution.
The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 gives some protection to Government (biodiversity) action plan habitats and species, but it does not provide for protected rights that can be enforced if they are attacked (for example if habitats or species are damaged through a pollution incident).