ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

17 March 2002


1. Farmers told GM crops are 'too dangerous to insure'
2. Australian insurers wary of GM crops


1. Farmers told GM crops are 'too dangerous to insure'

The Sunday Herald (Glasgow - United Kingdom)
March 10, 2002

Genetically modified crops, like war and nuclear accidents, have been deemed too dangerous to insure against, the Sunday Herald can reveal. Insurance companies have decided not to provide farmers, their neighbours or anyone else with cover against the risks of GM contamination.

This means that there will be no pay-outs for anyone whose health is harmed by GM food, and organic farmers put out of business by genetic pollution will get no compensation. As a result, leading land agents are advising their clients not to get involved with GM crops.

The revelations come amidst growing alarm about the dangers to human health and the environment posed by genetically engineered plants in Scotland. Doctors say GM food is a "gamble", while conservationists fear GM crops could breed "superweeds" resistant to herbicides.

Despite all this, the Scottish environment and rural development minister, Ross Finnie, is still backing the 14 farm-scale trials of GM oilseed rape in Aberdeenshire, Ross-shire and Fife (see map). The trials have provoked widespread opposition which will come to a head this week when protesters travel to Edinburgh to deliver a petition to the Scottish Parliament.

The protest is being led by the villagers of Munlochy in Ross-shire, where a GM trial has been under surveillance from a 24-hour vigil since last August. "The community is fundamentally against it and Finnie is riding roughshod over their opinion," said Anthony Jackson, one of the protesters.

Now their fears, and those of many others, have been endorsed by insurance companies, the commercial experts in risk assessment. The two standard exemption clauses in insurance policies - for damages caused by war or nuclear accidents - have been joined by a third: the dangers posed by GM crops.

"These are a new and unknown quantity and until there is more scientific evidence and legal information it is impossible for any insurance company to provide cover," a spokesman for NFU Insurance, a leading insurer for farmers, told the Sunday Herald.

"We believe that the companies that are in control of the trials should be responsible for the crops that are grown and we advise farmers to ensure that these companies accept any liabilities."

Major rural land agents like Smiths Gore and Finlayson Hughes warn farmers off planting GM crops because of the potential liabilities. "If you cannot get cover, you'll have to think long and hard about it," said Richard Thompson from Smiths Gore.

Anti-GM campaigners and farmers reacted with anger. "These are appalling risks for Scottish farmers to take and their worries about this have been ignored by Ross Finnie. Farmers can go out of business and lose their livelihoods without any recompense," said Jo Hunt from Highlands and Islands GM Concern.

"The Scottish Executive must move quickly to control these risks by requiring experimenting companies to provide full insurance cover and protect the 99.99% of Scotland's farmers who are not willing to take environmental risks which are unknown and uninsurable."

Peter Erskine, who runs an organic farm producing grain, grass and potatoes near Crail in Fife, is 16 miles from a proposed new GM trial at Newport on Tay. "I am not ecstatic about someone wantonly introducing a factor that could seriously affect my business and is uninsurable," he said.

The GM trials would reduce the value of the land and inevitably cause contamination in years to come, which could lead to the withdrawal of organic certification. "It's an appalling Pandora's Box that you can't put the lid on," he added. "It's grim."

Such concerns, however, are dismissed by the French multinational behind the GM trials, Aventis CropScience. Despite the large number of trials throughout Britain since the late 1980s, the company said that there had never been an occasion when any identifiable damage had been established, or anyone's organic certification had been removed.

"When it comes to insuring something new, insurance companies don't like it," observed Julian Little from Aventis. "If legal liability is established we would pay up. Of course we would. It's how you do business."

Last week Charles Saunders, chairman of the British Medical Association's public health committee, called for the GM trials to be halted until scientists can prove they are safe. "We simply do not have enough reliable scientific evidence on their safety to be able to make a valid decision as to whether there are potential health effects or not," he was reported as saying.

Meanwhile, Brian Johnson, the scientist from English Nature leading investigations into GM by the government's conservation agencies has warned about the risks of "superweeds". Research in Canada has shown that GM oilseed rape can produce seeds which accumulate resistance to more than one herbicide.

This phenomenon, known as "gene-stacking", could lead to rape plants, which cannot be controlled by normal weedkillers, interfering with other crops. "There are serious implications for GM contamination of conventional food," said Johnson.

Protesters will be urging the Scottish Parliament this week to back the suspension of all the GM trials in Scotland. As well as being uninsurable and potentially hazardous, they will argue that the Munlochy trial is illegal because it could damage a nearby conservation area, the Inner Moray Firth, which is protected under European law.

"The risks of GM are many and potentially huge, and are taken by every person living within a 9km radius of the site and in the resulting food chain," Highlands and Islands GM Concern will say. "The benefits are few and potentially very small or negative, and accrue to only one trans-national company, based in another country. GM crops are not worth the risk."


2. Australian insurers wary of GM crops

By Boyd Champness, Farmers Weekly Interactive, 12 November 2001

AUSTRALIA'S green movement received an unlikely boost in its fight against genetically modified crops last week when the insurance industry admitted it was reluctant to cover the biotechnology industry against litigation.

The Insurance Council of Australia (ICA) has said that it is loath to insure farmers, biotechnology and food companies for claims involving GM foods.

It would mean farmers growing GM crops at their own risk, leaving them personally liable for any future damages claims.

The Weekly Times newspaper reported that the insurance industry feared a repeat of the situation similar to the Wittenoom asbestos disaster, in which mining companies were sued for millions of dollars in damages by workers who contracted cancer years after being exposed to the deadly mineral.

The insurance council believes "the unforeseen risks of genetically modified foods may be too high for insurers".

The newspaper said insurers were wary of lawsuits involving consumers claiming allergic reactions to GM foods, contamination of non-GM crops and the development of mutant herbicide-resistant weeds.

The insurance council said, because the technology is new and complex, there is no way of assessing the risk of damages claims arising in the future and therefore no way of setting insurance premiums.

"It is such a new technology, it is virtually impossible to assess the risks down the track," ICA spokesman Rod Frail said.

And defending GM claims in court could prove difficult because of the complexity of the technology, the ICA said.

Two of Australia's biggest farm insurers, CGU and Elders, confirmed their uneasiness with GM crops to the Weekly Times.

"GM technology is still in its infancy and research on any direct or indirect impacts is far from conclusive," CGU spokesman Chris Jackson told the paper.

Mr Jackson said farmers who intend to grow a GM crop should declare it and cover would be "assessed on its merits".

Elders national insurance manager Kim Perrin said farmers should not assume they were automatically covered under their normal public liability policies, and should check with insurers before proceeding with GM crops.

Product liability lawyer David Poulton, from Minter Ellison, told the Weekly Times that insurance companies were likely to insert exclusion clauses in policies or decline to cover the risks associated with biotechnology altogether.
"If you look at the simple principle of genetic modification it spells ecological disaster. There are no ways of quantifying the risks... The solution is simply to ban the use of genetic modification in food." -Dr Harash Narang, microbiologist and senior research associate at the
University of Leeds, who originally caused a scientific and political storm by claiming a link between mad cow disease and CJD in humans.

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