2003 -- CropChoice news -- , The Guardian, 10/02/03:
Two of the three GM crops grown experimentally in Britain,
oil seed rape and sugar beet, appear more harmful to
the environment than conventional crops and should not
be grown in the UK, scientists are expected to tell
the government next week. The Guardian has learned that
the scientists will conclude that growing these crops
is damaging to plant and insect life.
The judgment will be a serious setback to the GM lobby
in the UK and Europe, reopening the acrimonious debate
about GM food.
The third crop, GM maize, allows the survival of more
weeds and insects and might be recommended for approval,
though some scientists still have reservations.
The results of the three years of field scale trials
- the largest scientific experiment of its type on GM
crops undertaken anywhere in the world - will be published
next Friday by the august Philosophical Transactions
of the Royal Society. The results have been a closely
guarded secret for months, and will be studied by scientists,
farmers, food companies and governments across the world.
The study will include eight peer-reviewed papers about
the effect of growing GM crops and accompanying herbicides
on the plants and animals living in the fields around.
The papers compare the GM fields with conventional crops
grown in adjacent fields.
The overwhelming public hostility in the UK to GM crops
has not been shared by scientists or the government
but the results of the field scale trials are expected
to be a jolt to the enthusiasts. The Royal Society refused
to publish a ninth paper produced by the scientific
The Society's explanation was that the ninth paper
was not a scientific document but a summary of findings
and in effect a recommendation to the advisory committee
on releases to the environment - the expert quango.
The scientists involved will now themselves publish
this summary at the same time as the other eight papers,
concluding that two of the three crops should not be
The trials were set up four years ago by the former
environment minister, Michael Meacher, urged on by English
Nature, the government's watchdog on the natural world,
which feared that the UK's already declining farmland
species might be further damaged by the introduction
of GM crops.
A three-year moratorium on the commercial introduction
of crops was negotiated with the GM companies Monsanto,
Syngenta and Bayer Bioscience while the experimental
field trials took place. Despite repeated attacks by
anti-GM protesters that destroyed many of the fields,
the scientists decided they had enough results to be
scientifically valid. Experts not involved in the trials
had not expected definitive results even though hundreds
of fields were used.
The numbers of weed species and various types of spiders,
ground beetles, butterflies, moths and bees in fields
of GM crops and the adjacent conventional crop fields
were counted to see if they showed marked differences.
All were treated with herbicides to kill weeds but the
GM crops were modified to survive special types made
by Monsanto and Bayer.
The papers accepted for publication by the Royal Society
show that in GM sugar beet and oil seed rape the weeds
and insects were significantly less numerous. Spraying
with the Monsanto herbicide glyphosate had taken a heavy
toll in the beet fields and the Bayer product glufosinate
ammonium had wiped out many species in the rape fields.
For maize the reverse appears to be the case. The reason
seems to be that maize fields are normally sprayed with
atrazine, which kills weeds as they germinate, and is
an even more savage killer than the Bayer product. But
the result may be controversial because maize is particularly
sensitive to competition from weeds and yields may be
down. Farmers in America found glufosinate ammonium
was not enough to kill competitive weeds and used a
second herbicide, further damaging biodiversity.
The political fall out from the trial results is potentially
enormous. It would give the government every excuse
to refuse permission outright for two of the three crops
on environmental grounds. One of the two legally watertight
reasons for such a refusal is the environment, the other
is health. Almost all of northern Europe, with similar
farming conditions, would be expected to follow any
GM maize, grown in the UK as a fodder crop, may be
given the green light under strict guidelines, as a
concession to the GM companies and the US where a trade
war looms. The US is threatening to take the EU to the
World Trade Organization if the moratorium on GM crops
The government has other minefields to negotiate before
GM crops can be introduced. The agriculture and environment
biotechnology commission is still wrestling with the
vexed question of distances required between GM and
conventional crops to avoid cross contamination and
compensation schemes for injured farmers if all goes
If contamination above 0.9% occurs in conventional
crops it will have to be declared losing virtually all
value to food companies, all UK supermarkets and other
major vendors. For organic farmers the threshold is
even lower at 0.1%.
The majority of the commission members believe that
the biotech industry should set up a fund with a levy
on farmers growing GM crops to compensate any conventional
farmers whose crops lose value because of cross-contamination.
The biotech industry is wholly opposed to this.
The commission is also set to recommend a second statutory
fund paid for by the government to compensate farmers
who lose organic status for the same reason.
New legislation would be required to set up the schemes
and enforce the separation distances between crops.
The legally enforceable separation distances could be
made larger or smaller in the future in the light of
The commission meets again in December by which time
a draft of proposals will be circulated.