October 3, 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
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 grown.
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
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 British ban.
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 wrong.
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
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 experience.
The commission meets again in December by which time a draft of
proposals will be circulated.