AgBioView 'Special on UK Farm Scale Evaluation - Comments
- From http://www.agbioworld.org : November 18, 2003
(Click here for more FSE articles
* Can Birds, Weeds and Sugarbeets Coexist?
* Media Pounce on GM Data
* Chain Reactions
* GM Trial Results Reverberate
* Evaluating the Farm-scale Trials
to ACRE on the Farm Scale Evaluations
Can Birds, Weeds and Sugarbeets Coexist?
- Leonard Gianessi, AgBioView, Nov 16, 2003 http://www.agbioworld.org;
(National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, Washington, DC; firstname.lastname@example.org
The release in the United Kingdom of the Farm Scale Evaluations (FSEs)
that compare the planting of genetically engineered (GE) maize, sugarbeets
and oilseed rape with plantings of conventional crops has sparked a useful
discussion of the tradeoffs involved in the adoption of agricultural technologies.
The bottom-line message from the FSE experiments is that in fields of
sugarbeets and oilseed rape, there are fewer weeds in the genetically
engineered fields than in the conventional fields while in the maize trials,
the reverse is the case. The genetically engineered crops have the ability
to tolerate certain herbicides that kill conventional varieties. Thus,
the only change between the fields is that in the GE fields, growers switch
to a different herbicide applied at a different time of the season to
kill the weeds in the field. In sugarbeets and oilseed rape, this herbicide
program is more effective than herbicides used in conventional fields,
while the herbicide program is less effective in maize.
Hence, the result is more dead weeds in sugarbeets and rape and fewer
dead weeds in maize with the switch to the herbicide used with the genetically
engineered varieties. One concern raised in the U.K. is that fewer weeds
in a field means fewer weed seeds and insects that are food sources for
The FSE report cited our estimate that the adoption of herbicide-tolerant
GE sugarbeet varieties in Europe could lead to a 60 per cent reduction
in herbicide use (available at www.ncfap.org). The FSE report showed a
36 per cent reduction in herbicide use in the comparison of conventional
and GE fields in the U.K. The FSE analysis did not compare sugarbeet yields
nor did it compare the costs of the weed control programs. In our study,
we estimate that sugarbeet yields would be about 5 per cent greater in
GE fields, and that the cost of weed control would be 56 per cent lower.
Herbicides are used on almost 100 per cent of the UK's sugarbeet acres.
A small minority of U.K. sugarbeet acreage is organic (0.2 per cent),
and the biggest problem for organic growers is controlling weeds without
herbicides. Our aggregate impact estimates can be compared with aggregate
estimates extrapolated from the FSE experiments to more fully identify
the potential tradeoffs of switching from conventional weed control to
GE varieties on the U.K.'s 422,000 acres of sugarbeets.
Weed control in conventional UK sugarbeet fields is currently very effective
with conventional herbicides. The FSE data indicate that 132,000 weeds
per acre persisted with conventional herbicides, which represents 95 per
cent fewer weeds than an acre not treated for weed control (2.5 million).
Conventional sugarbeet growers in the U.K. are currently killing 999 billion
weed seedlings each year. The gain for killing these weeds is that U.K.
farmers produce 9 billion kg of sugarbeets, of which 81% (7.3 billion
kg) would be lost due to uncontrolled weeds.
The FSE data indicate that in the GE field, 101,000 weed seedlings would
remain. This implies that the planting of GE sugarbeets would lead to
the death of another 13 billion weed seedlings, or about a 1% increase
over current conditions.
One other possibility that is described in our sugarbeet case study is
that the U.K. could forego the overall five per cent yield increase on
every acre currently planted to sugarbeets and instead maintain current
overall production levels on five per cent fewer acres. Farmers could
take every twentieth acre out of production, and it could be devoted to
some other purpose, such as growing weeds for bird feed. If five per cent
of the U.K.'s sugarbeet acres were devoted entirely to growing weeds (21,000
acres) those acres would produce an additional 49.7 billion weed seedlings,
a far greater number than the additional weeds that would be killed in
We estimate that in the U.K., a switchover to GE sugarbeets would reduce
pesticide use by 222,000 kilograms/year, increase sugarbeet production
by 450 million kilograms/year and improve grower net income by 41 million
The FSE analysis did not address the question of how many fewer birds
would live in GE sugarbeet fields or estimate their aggregate value. To
directly compare our impact estimates with FSEs, it would be useful to
know the number of birds and their estimated value.
Media Pounce on GM Data
- Bernard Dixon, Current Biology, Vol 13 No 22 R856
'Bernard Dixon reports on the reaction to the publication last month
of the results of Britain's three-year field-scale trials of three genetically
Readers of the Britain's Daily Telegraph must be confused. 'Field trials
show GM crop farming could be 'disastrous' for wildlife' said its news
report ont he UK's field-scale GM crop trial results. Bumblebees, butterflies,
skylarks, yellowhammers, house sparrows, beetles and slugs all faced disaster
if ministers approved the nation wide cultivation of transgenic plants
Anyone turning to the leader page, however, found a very different picture.
'All that motivates anti-GM feeling is fear of the new, a perfectly justifiable
emotion until tests such as these show how unfounded and irrational it
is,' an editorial announced. The findings did notp rove that genetically
modified crops were dangerous. 'All they show is that GM beet and spring
rape crops encourage fewer weeds
than conventional crops. And when
it comes to maize, more weeds grow
And that's it -- no venomous
seeds, no wiping out of organic food, no spectre of agricultural holocaust.'
As for superweeds which 'pickup genes from GM plants and turninto nightmarish,
irrepressible triffids', there was no indication that transgenic plants
were more likely to do this than conventional ones. Anyway, what was wrong
with transgenes which make' exactly the same toxins that organic farmers
slosh all over heir crops'?
The Daily Telegraph's robust defence was a conspicuous exception to a
media scene characterized largely by gloom and even terror. The Daily
Mirror's headline 'Silent Spring' introduced a grim portrait in words
and pictures of a landscape ravaged by recombinant DNA technology. 'Green
campaigners say the results
foretell a future without birdsong in
the spring as their food and habitats are hit,' wrote parliamentary editor
He quoted Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth as saying that 'The impact
of GM crops on wildlife is very dramatic. The government has no alternative
but to stand by its pledge to ban GM crops.' Greenpeace's view was that
'Tony Blair should close the door on GM for good.' Only the Guardian published
a comparison of favourable and unfavourable reactions to the trial results.
Headlined 'Outright ban, caution or green light?', and occupying a whole
page, it set out responses from industrial, activist ,scientific and consumer
sources, together with opposing personal testimonies from two farmers.
The Guardian's own conclusion was simply that 'the government has yet
to find an argument that has convinced the public that GM is a green revolution
we can ill afford to miss out on. Until ministers do so, GM crops will
remain a much talked about idea, but never an eaten foodstuff.'
'Proven: environmental dangers that may halt GM revolution' headed The
Independent's coverage. '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,'
asserted environment editor Michael McCarthy
Apparently unaware that the pharmaceutical industry has been using recombinant
organisms for many years to make life-saving drugs, the Independent's
editorial writer added: 'It may yet be that genetic engineering could
produce huge benefits to human kind, helping to feed the multitudes and
cure them of all manner of diseases. These were the promises that lured
a technocratic prim minister into uncritical support for Britain's biotechnology
industry.' 'The verdict could hardly be more devastating for a government
that always thinks it knows best,' said the Daily Mail.' Three years of
farm trials on GM crops have shown that they risk creating a biological
desert, with our countryside denuded of butterflies, bees, beetles and
Journalists on all sides told readers that, as the Daily Mirror put it
most succinctly, 'the technology damages wild life'. Few voices pointed
out that the trials were actually about the (intended and predictable)
effects of powerful weed killers rather than about transgenic manipulation
as a generic process. Likewise, few observed that GM was being blamed
for environmental consequences of the increasing intensification of agriculture
that has occurred ever since the industrial revolution.
One person who did offer this wider insight was Andy Coghlan in the weekly
magazine, NewScientist. 'Although these farm scale evaluations are being
portrayed as tests of the environmental credentials of GM crops, it is
really the weed killers to which they are resistant that are on trial,'
Coghlan wrote.If the aim of the exercise really was to save farmland wildlife,
then banning any of the transgenic plants tested was unlikely to make
much difference.' That's because herbicide use in the UK is soaring even
before any GM crops are introduced. And in the long term, farmers denied
GM crops may instead turn to non-GM crops bred to be resistant to the
herbicides.' Now being developed, these do not have to undergo the same
regulatory scrutiny as transgenic plants.
The Independent's report hinted that GM per se should not be the target
of criticism, but did not explore the idea further. It did provide a telling
quote from Brian Johnson of English Nature: 'The results confirm our long-held
concerns that some (my italics) GM-herbicide resistant crops could further
intensify (my italics) arable farming and harm wildlife.'
Cogent remarks not from journalists but from newspaper readers amplified
these much more reasonable perspectives. 'I can hardly believe it,' wrote
Michael Egan in the Independent.' An intensive scientific investigation
reveals that the use of aggressive weed killers reduces the number of
weeds, which in turn has an effect on wildlife further along the food
chain.' Inconsequence, transgenic technology 'carries the can.' 'Can we
please have a more adult reflection on the whole context?
intensive, monocultural farming practice that has the real environmental
impact, and it is our desire for cheap food that has made this happen.
To portray GM technology itself as being fundamentally responsible for
the study findings
is wholly misleading and deflects attention from
deeper considerations.' True.
But why leave it to readers to make the most crucial points of all?
Bernard Dixon is the European editor of the American Society for Microbiology
- Nigel Williams, Current Biology, Vol 13 No 22 R854
The farm scale trials were the largest and most thorough of their kind
in the world. But, as the previous article argues, they were essentially
a test of the herbicides in common use today. The results however, reveal
just how potent the use of herbicides can be on the wild life living in
and around modern arable fields.
Scientists had never previously been able to observe how changing farm
practices are affecting wildlife across the country. They costed £5
million and lasted four years. 'It is the first time a novel agricultural
technology has been trialed extensively before it has been introduced
rather than examine the consequences after it has been introduced,' said
Chris Pollack, chairman of the scientific steering committee which oversaw
The trials were designed to test whether weeds and insects fared better
in fields of conventional crops or crops which had been genetically modified
to be resistant to a herbicide In GM crops it meant the farmer could use
one application of herbicide to kill a large spread of weeds in one go
without harming the crops. Conventional crops might need several applications
of different herbicides at different stages in order to keep weeds undercontrol.
The trials were held becauset here had already been a steady decline
since the 1960s in the number of weeds because of increasingly intensive
agriculture. As a result, there has been a reduction in a wide range of
animal species, including bumblebees, grey partridges and corn buntings.
They were losing both their food sources and their habitats. Scientists
were surprised to find considerable differences between conventional and
GM crops and that they were so marked as much as five to one in
the number of weed seeds produced in conventional oilseed rape compared
with the GM variety. The results were also remarkably consistent across
Britain, although scientists had expected regional variations. This led
them to believe the results would apply across the whole of Europe
'The introduction of GM cropping will affect wildlife. We were asked
to see differences and we found them,' said LesFirbank, a senior scientist
at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology at Monks Wood in Cambridgeshire.
There were 273field trials, 68 fields of maize, 67of spring-sown oil-seed
rape an66 of beet, both for sugar and fodder. Studies on winter-sown oil-seed
rape are still to come. The GM maize and rape were resistant to Liberty
(glufosinate ammonium) made by Bayer Crop Science, and the GM beet to
Roundup (glyphosate) made by Monsanto. Each trial field was divided into
two, half sown with the GM crop and half with its conventional equivalent.
Farmers were allowed to treat the crops as they would normally, deciding
when to plough and when to plant crops, and when to treat with herbicides.T
he researchers monitored the plants and animals in the fields, around
the ploughed edges oft he fields, before, during and after the crops were
grown. Each field was visited 15-20 times peryear
Researchers measured the number of grasses and broad leaved weeds. This
gave a good measure of the quantity of foliage, flowers and stems that
were above ground and available for animals to eat, as well as how many
seeds the weeds produced. Another measure was how many seeds fell from
the weeds on to the soil surface, known as 'seed rain'. This allows researchers
to predict how many seeds would be available for insects and birds to
eat. This is particularly important because some farmland birds
skylark, corn bunting and yellowhammer -- which rely on weed seeds in
the autumn and winter have been declining. The number of weed seeds left
to provide plants for the future was also measured. The researchers monitored
the numbers of insects in and around crops including butterflies, bees,
ground beetles, springtails (which live in the soil), and true bugs, as
well as spiders
In spring the density of weed seedlings in the GM beet fields was four
times that in the conventional crops because many farmers had sprayed
to kill weeds in conventional crops before the beet seedlings emerged.
However, applying Roundup to the GM crops in May halved the weed density
compared with conventional crops. After this the biomass of the remaining
weeds was six times lower and the 'seed rain' was three times lower compared
with conventional crops. Although there were never many bees or butterflies
in beet crops, there were even fewer in the GM beet crops, probably because
there were fewer flowering weeds to attract them. There were also fewer
butterflies in the tilled margins. Bee numbers, generally low everywhere,
were even lower in the GM crops. Growing GM beet is likely to affect populations
of weeds in the long term as seed stores will shrink
In the spring-sown rape trials, the researchers found 70 percent less
volume of weeds in GM crops and 80 per cent fewer broad-leaved weed seeds.
Springtails were significantly more abundant in July and spiders in August,
just before the harvest. This was probably because the springtails feed
on rotting weeds, which were more abundant in GM crops sprayed later in
the year. The spiders were probably feeding on the springtails
Both the density and size of broad leaved weeds was three times higher
in the GM maizef ields than in conventional maize fields. Taken together
the weeds in the GM crops produced twice as many seeds as the weeds in
the conventional crops. Over the growing season butterflies were attracted
to the GM maize fields and field margins in the same numbers as conventional
fields. There were three times as many honeybees in the GM field boundaries
because of more flowering plants, but researchers stress that even in
GM fields numbers were low. Growing GM maize would be an option for farmers
wanting to replace more intensive and persistent herbicides such as atrazine,
which is being phased out as too toxic. More weeds and seeds were produced
in GM fields, suggesting that birds as well as small mammals like mice
But the glimmer of hope that some GM crops may be of environmental benefit
compared to conventional crops comes against a backdrop of blanket consumer
hostility to the crops. This has been so strong some research companies,
such as Monsanto, have withdrawn their research programmes in Europe.
This is leading to the loss of jobs and demoralisation amongst the plant
research community. Insurers have also panicked, according to media reports,
and are unwilling to insure any farmers who might wish to grow GM crops
if the authorities give them the green light.
Whatever, it is the plant science departments bearing the brunt of future
prospects. Chris Leaver, head of plant sciences at the University of Oxford,
has had abusive phone calls and faxes and other direct attacks following
his willingness to enter the public debate on GM crops
In Cambridge, three researchers are leaving the plant science department
as a result of public hostility and dwindling industrial opportunities.
Mark Tester, has written that his imminent move from Cambridge to the
Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics marks a personal frustration
at trying to carry out his work in the UK
Twenty-eight incidents of vandalism targeted at at basic plant research
trials were reported between January 1999and April 2003, according to
preliminary findings carried out by the independent body Senseabout Science.
These are in addition to 52 incidents reported against the government's
field scale evaluations programme
'The UK is now left with excellent plant-science research, but only at
a fundamental academic level. The universities and the large research
institutes now compete in similar research areas for a relatively modest
budget compared with that enjoyed by US and Canadian colleagues.' says
Tester. 'In my view, UK plant science is an unsustainable and risky passion,
and so too is UK agriculture,' he says.
Trial Results Reverberate
- Philip Hunter, The Scientist, Nov. 17, 2003 http://www.biomedcentral.com/news/20031117/06/
'The UK's farm scale evaluations are shaking things up in Europe'
The results of the world's largest study of genetically modified (GM)
crops' impact on biodiversity, completed last month in the United Kingdom,
were mixed and limited. But the huge scale of the project is ensuring
that the results are being carefully digested across the whole of Europe.
The mixed results, with GM oilseed rape and sugar beet faring badly while
maize appeared to have beneficial results for the environment, have provided
ammunition for proponents and opponents of genetically modified organisms
(GMOs) contacted by The Scientist. "People in favor of GMOs say the
results mean we should analyze all crops case by case," says Daniel
Evain, a French farmer and keen observer of the GMO debate as a former
agronomist with Monsanto, a food biotechnology company.
This line also has a significant number of advocates in Germany, according
to Hartmut Meyer, coordinator for the European NGO-Network on Genetic
Engineering. "These results have had quite an impact, at least in
so far as they make clear that you can't have a one-size-fits-all approach
to risk assessment," says Meyer. "You have to look in a specific
country and circumstance."
On the whole, the UK Farm Scale Evaluation (FSE) results have tended
to swing journalists and opinion formers against GMOs within Europe, certainly
in France, Evain argues. "Before the results, they were either in
favor or agnostic," says Evain, "but now they tend to be more
skeptical, asking more questions."
However, biotechnology companies have taken great heart from the results,
according to Bernard Marantelli, spokesman for the Agricultural Biotechnology
Council representing biotech companies such as Monsanto and Dupont. "The
results show that GM crops can be grown in a flexible manner, with benefits
for biodiversity. An aspect of the results that was not well publicized
was that the three GM crops in the FSE trials all had reduced amounts
of spraying, compared with the non-GM versions," notes Marantelli.
The FSE trials concentrated on the effect on biodiversity of managing
genetically modified herbicide-tolerant (GMHT) plants compared with conventional
varieties, with particular emphasis on weeds within crop fields. About
180 fields in total were sown with maize, sugar beet, and spring oilseed
rape in equal proportions. "The results were quite clear for two
of the crops, the beet and the oil seed rape--there was no doubt that
wildlife was reduced for those spots that have GMHT," says Professor
Joe Perry, the statistician with co-responsibility for design of the FSE
studies and analysis of the results within the consortium conducting the
For maize, the results were completely the other way around, but the
fact that the herbicide atrazine, used to control weeds for the non-GM
part of the study, had just been banned throughout the EU puts the relevance
of those results in some doubt. However, the study's architects suggest
that the results would have been broadly similar if alternative herbicides
to atrazine had been used.
The results will shape public policy and determine the fate of applications
involving release of GMOs throughout the European Union for years to come,
says Perry. According to Chris Pollock, chair of the scientific steering
committee for the £5.9 million ($10 million) FSE study, the results
will provide the baseline data for ecological modeling and extrapolation
of the impact of GMO crops on biodiversity worldwide. This is a
bloody good piece of science and will have a huge impact in its subject
area for a long time to come, says Pollock. The results go beyond
the GM issue, Pollock insists. "The essence here is the new agronomy.
The natural balance in a country like Britain where wildlife and farming
go hand in hand is very sensitive between productive and nonproductive
use of photosynthesis."
Although statistically powerful, the FSE study was confined to biodiversity.
And according to Perry, further trials are needed to provide more data
on contamination by GM crops of conventional crops growing in the vicinity.
As he points out, the maximum limit for GM contamination tolerated throughout
the European Union has been reduced from about 1% to 0.09%. There's
not much data about contamination at such very low levels, Perry
notes. The GM community is eagerly awaiting two UK studies looking at
contamination both at very low levels and over long distances resulting
from wide-ranging pollinators or unusual winds, but these are not due
to report for up to 3 years.
Among other studies still needed are further investigations of different
GMO categories, including crops engineered for virus resistance, according
The problem is that such studies would be expensive on the scale required
for statistical significance, at a time when public resistance to GM foods
is hardening across Europe. GM farmers are having to cope not just with
vandalism from protesters, but with growing difficulty obtaining insurance.
A recent UK survey by the campaigning group FARM found that many leading
UK insurers will no longer provide indemnity cover for liabilities arising
from growth of GM crops, such as claims from neighboring farms over contamination.
Links for this article
R. Walgate, Mixed results for GM crop trial, The Scientist, October 16,
European NGO-Network on Genetic Engineering http://www.genet-info.org/
UK Farm Scale Evaluations http://www.defra.gov.uk/environment/gm/fse/index.htm
Agricultural Biotechnology Council http://www.abcinformation.org/
the Farm-scale Trials
- Conrad Lichtenstein, Spiked Online, Nov. 13, 2003 http://www.spiked-online.com/Articles/00000006DFBF.htm
The findings of the farm-scale evaluation (FSE) of spring-sown genetically
modified crops were recently published in a special issue of the Philosophical
Transactions of the Royal Society. The FSE was designed to evaluate farmland
biodiversity, comparing genetically modified herbicide-tolerant (GMHT)
crops to conventional crops.
That the evaluation involved GM crops is not relevant: herbicide-tolerant
crops can also be, and indeed have been, developed by conventional methods.
GM is a process not a product - and, as demonstrated by this study, each
new product (whether it is GM, conventional or organic) needs to be evaluated
on a case-by-case basis using rational evidence-based science.
Indeed, the FSE was actually a herbicide experiment, comparing the direct
effects of different herbicides and treatment regimes. The robustness
of the data surprised the research teams in being remarkably consistent
across a wide variety of soil types and weeds in different parts of the
country. It was also the first large-scale ecological study of its type.
Over three growing seasons, GMHT maize, sugar and fodder beet, and oil-seed
rape were compared in about 65 split fields to their adjacent non-GM equivalents.
Similar studies on autumn-sown oil-seed rape should be published in spring
There is no early or pre-emergence spraying for the GMHT crops, so it
is not surprising that the FSE found higher weed numbers and biomass early
in the growing season. But for beet and rape the regime for GMHT was found
to be more effective at weed control than for the conventional crops,
giving lower late-season weed biomass and seeds. Indirect effects further
down the food chain on the animals that feed on weeds - such as bees and
butterflies - showed a net reduction in numbers.
In maize, however, the opposite result was found: GMHT maize herbicide
regimes support more weeds and feeding invertebrates than conventional
maize. For all three crops there was an increase in detrivores (animals
that feed on the increased amount of weed detritus arising from later
spraying). Importantly, differences in biodiversity between crops - for
example, maize versus rape - are greater than differences between GMHT
and conventional rape, or beet or maize. There were also lower inputs
of herbicides for the GMHT crops.
The FSE did not evaluate differences in yields of GMHT compared to conventional
crops. But since farmers elsewhere choose GMHT crops we must assume that
they outperform conventional varieties. And since GMHT gives better weed
control it makes farming more efficient, which allows: more food to be
grown, cheaper food, less land under cultivation, increased profits for
farmers, reduced farm subsidies, or any combination of the above, according
to the rules set by the government. Nonetheless the FSEs were of course
presented to us as bad news for the environment by most of the national
press and the anti-GM pressure groups.
But let us look at these FSEs in the context of agriculture in the UK
as a whole. Any increase in agricultural efficiency must be at the expense
of the wild ecosystems with which they compete. Conventional and organic
farming both 'damage the environment' and 'reduce biodiversity'. In the
UK, 75 per cent of the land is given over to farming, with the remaining
25 per cent shared with cities and towns, roads and managed forestry,
leaving little in a virgin wild state of what was once mainly forest.
The destruction of hedgerows, the use of fertilisers and silage, the introduction
of winter-sowing and of 'foreign' crops have all added to the destruction
of the natural environment and the reduction in biodiversity.
Thus we are faced with choices in how to provide the balance we desire
between wild ecosystems and the agriculture and industry with which they
conflict. And clearly we should use the most economical and least damaging
methods to achieve this desired balance.
For example, beet and rape support more biodiversity than maize (which
is much taller, inhibiting the growth of weeds beneath). Crops in the
FSE, in ranging between one and four per cent cultivated land area, are
dwarfed in their coverage of the national cropped area by the cereals
- for example, winter wheat is about 44 per cent. Yet the cereals, which
were not the subject of this FSE, also support less biodiversity than
beet and rape.
Surely it is more rational to make large-scale strategic decisions about
which crops to grow for biodiversity? Dramatic changes in biodiversity
could be effected by changing the crops grown - such as growing less wheat
or maize and using beet and rape as break crops more extensively. Relatively
small changes here might dwarf the effects on biodiversity of GMHT beet
and rape in relation to conventional varieties.
But inefficient agriculture requires more land. If GM technology produces
crop varieties with increased yields, another strategic decision would
be to maintain current production quotas, so leaving more land for wildlife.
The FSEs set a new precedent in being the first studies of their kind
conducted before the implementation of a new technology, allowing a decision
as to whether to shut the stable door while the horse is still inside.
The studies took three years and cost almost £6 million; they have
given radical new insights into the ecology of agricultural systems that
may allow future predictive mathematical modelling to be performed that
may make future evaluation cheaper and more rapid.
However, the studies were based on very specific herbicide regimes. For
example, the maize studies indicated that GMHT crops supported greater
biodiversity than conventional crops - but atrazine, the herbicide used
by 75 per cent of the farmers in the trial, has now been banned. So presumably,
any decision as to whether to approve the use of GMHT maize will require
its evaluation against the new conventional herbicide regime that replaces
Indeed, the logical and most honest extrapolation from this FSE is surely
that any future change in a herbicide or spraying regime on any crop -
be it GM, conventional or organic - will also require a farm-scale evaluation.
If not, what was the point of this recent FSE? But will newly evaluated
herbicides remain still-born within an FSE, to become superseded coincident
with their approval by the continual need to re-evaluate them against
the latest new technology? The FSEs were funded by the public sector.
So if this Kafkaesque nightmare is really unleashed upon us, and indeed
this new precedent is set, who will pay for these future evaluations?
Meanwhile, back on the organic farm, the 'organic horse' bolted long
before 'stable doors' had been invented: organic farmers use old-fashioned
herbicides that, because they are less specific in their toxicity, are
rather poisonous beyond their intended victims, the weeds. Yet they are
in use, because their adoption preceded the regulations now required for
approval of modern herbicides. As we know, organic farmers and consumers
are concerned for the environment - surely they should therefore also
be willing to submit their herbicides to the same farm-scale evaluations?
Organic farmers should also accept that the process of GM technology,
which indeed is by definition a very organic technology, is simply another
tool for plant breeding and can also provide future new products. In other
words, new plant varieties that can be more readily grown by the 'organic'
process. For example, GM crops that themselves produce safe pesticides
against target herbivorous insects would pre-empt the need to spray with
pesticides. It would also make organic food safer by preventing the damage
inflicted by feeding insects that allows invasion by fungal pathogens
producing carcinogenic toxins. The fact that GM can be used to produce
these kinds of crop varieties, suggests that there is no contradiction
between organic and GM.
Conrad Lichtenstein is professor of molecular biology at Queen Mary, University
of London. He is committed to the public understanding of science within
the GM debate and is a member of the CropGen panel.