by Sean Poulter
Consumer Affairs Correspondent
INSURANCE companies are refusing to cover farmers against the unforeseen dangers of growing genetically modified crops.
They are not prepared to carry the risk of huge payouts linked to possible health risks and contamination of neighbouring farms.
And they have even compared GM crops to Thalidomide, asbestos and acts of terrorism in terms of the potential claims.
Thalidomide was the morning sickness 'wonder drug' which was later found to have caused thousands of birth defects and triggered compensation claims totalling more than £100 million.
The potentially huge payouts which GM farmers could face was outlined recently in a study by the Downing Street strategy unit.
It indicated there is a risk that farmers will be sued if people became ill because they were allergic to GM pollen or foods.
There would be huge costs in recalling food products which are found to harm health.
And GM farmers could face massive 'clean up' costs resulting from the accidental pollen contamination of organic farms, conventional crops and the countryside.
There is no Government regime that would bale out GM farmers in these circumstances, and consequently they would have to find private insurance.
But research among the five leading agricultural insurers by Farm, a group of growers sceptical about GM, indicates that this would be virtually impossible.
The Agricultural Insurance Underwriters Agency, which is linked to Norwich Union/Sun Alliance, has an exclusion clause in policies sold to farmers ruling out liability for GM claims.
Rural Insurance Group also has an exclusion which puts GM crops in the same bracket as 'acts of terrorism'.
BIB Underwriters Limited, which is linked to AXA, rules out offering GM liability cover. This is partly because of concerns that farms may be targeted by protesters.
NFU Mutual refuses to provide cover and advises farmers who are tempted to grow GM to get the biotech companies to indemnify them against claims.
Another company, Farmers Web, says it is reviewing its policies.
One insurance company official told Farm: 'The worry is that GM could be like Thalidomide - only after some time would the full extent of the problems be seen.'
Another underwriter said: 'Fifty years ago they were writing policies for asbestos without a care in the world.. Now they are faced with bills of hundreds of millions.
'There is a feeling that GM could come back and bite you in five years' time.'
Farm's national co-ordinator, Robin Maynard, said: 'When insurers quantify GM crops in the same category as Thalidomide, asbestos and terrorism, no thinking farmer shuld risk their business and public reputation by taking on this unproven, unwanted and unnecessary technology.
'If Government and their friends in the biotech companies dispute the judgement of the professional insurers, perhaps they will offer unlimited cover to the few farmers willing to risk growing GM crops?'