Published on Friday, October 17, 2003 by the lndependent/UK
Proven: The Environmental Dangers That May Halt GM Revolution
by Michael McCarthy
British Scientists delivered a massive blow to the case for genetically modified crops yesterday when they showed in a trail-blazing study that growing them could harm the environment.
Their findings, which will spark controversy around the world, are likely to present a serious obstacle to Tony Blair in his desire to bring GM technology to Britain, and will be viewed with concern and anger in the United States, home of GM technology. They could ultimately lead to a ban on growing the crops concerned throughout the European Union.
Certainly the chances of GM crops being planted commercially in Britain itself look much less likely after the discovery, in the three-year study, that farmland wildlife is harmed much more by the extra-powerful weedkillers used with GM crops than by herbicides used in conventional agriculture.
The results of the study came after a succession of reports to the Government this summer, all questioning the economics, the science and the public acceptability of GM, and will be seen in some quarters as the clinching argument against GM commercialization in Britain.
Michael Meacher, who as environment minister set up the study in 1998 and presided over it for most of its duration before being sacked in the last government reshuffle, writes in today's Independent that the Government's strategy over GM "is unraveling fast".
The biotech industry, by contrast, put a brave face on yesterday's findings. "None of the studies published this year supports the banning of any GM crops," said Paul Rylott, of the industry's umbrella body, the Agricultural Biotechnology Council.
The Government itself kept its cards close to its chest yesterday, with Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, saying she would "carefully reflect" on the results.
It will be months, perhaps more than a year, before a final decision is taken, which will almost certainly be at a European level. But whatever happens there is little doubt that there will be continued American pressure on Mr Blair to push GM technology forward, despite widespread public opposition, which has now - for the first time - been backed up with serious science.
The three-year study, set up by the Government itself and known as the Farm-Scale Evaluations (FSE), compared what happened to biodiversity in the fields during the growth of three GM crops - sugar beet, oilseed rape and maize - with what happened during the growth of their conventional, non-GM equivalents in adjoining fields.
The GM crops had all been genetically engineered to be herbicide-tolerant - to be unaffected by so-called "broad-spectrum" weedkillers, very deadly chemicals such as Monsanto's Roundup or Bayer's Liberty, which are too strong to be used in conventional crop fields as they would kill everything, including the crop plants themselves.
With two out of three crops tested - beet and oilseed rape - far fewer plants, seeds and insects such as bees and butterflies were left in the GM fields after the application of weedkiller than in the non-GM fields, the study found. In the beet fields, there were 1.3 times as many weeds and three times as many seeds left for birds and insects to feed on in the conventional fields compared with the GM fields, with 1.4 times as many butterflies. In the oilseed rape fields there were 1.7 times as many weeds, five times more seeds and 1.3 times as many butterflies.
With a third crop, maize, the reverse trend was true, with more biodiversity left in the GM fields - but the researchers themselves put a question mark over this result yesterday, saying it might have to be revised. This is because the herbicide that was used with the conventional maize, atrazine, is itself so deadly and long-lasting that it is being banned in Europe - and so the comparison is potentially flawed.
The researchers say the study is the first large-scale field trial of a novel agricultural system before it has been put into practice. It involved more 200 sites, from south-west England to northern Scotland, and more than 4,000 site visits; in the course of it more than half a million seeds and more than 1.5 million insects and other invertebrates were counted.
Peer-reviewed and published by the Royal Society, the results confirm, over eight scientific papers, conservationists' concerns that the GM crops scheduled for growth in Britain would mean yet another blow for the insects, flowers and birds that have already been decimated by more than 30 years of intensive farming.
English Nature, the Government's wildlife and conservation adviser, had pressed for the trials to be set up in 1998. Brian Johnson, English Nature's biotechnology adviser and the man who headed the call, said the results confirmed the agency's fears.
"The results confirm our long-held concerns that some GM herbicide-tolerant crops could further intensify arable farming and harm wildlife," he said. "If these crops were grown commercially in the UK, we now know that there would be further declines in farmland wildlife."
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said many farmland birds relied on weed seeds for their survival, and the trials had shown that GM beet and GM spring oilseed rape reduced seed numbers by up to 80 per cent, compared with conventional beet and oilseed rape.
The results will now go to another government GM advisory body, which will examine them and offer ministers its own advice.
The first large-scale trials of GM crops anywhere in the world involved tests on three crops, lasted three years, and cost £5.5m. The findings showed a significant impact on wildlife
GM Oilseed Rape
The tests showed a fivefold decrease in flora and a 25 per cent reduction in butterflies. There were also fewer seeds for wildlife to eat
GM Sugar Beet
Reduction in wild plants growing in fields and 40 per cent fewer flowers at field margins
There was an 82% increase in seeds and more insects were present. But there are doubts about the weedkiller used
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd