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Date:

May 6, 2010

Subject:

March of GM Crops; Unblocking the European Paralysis; Revenge of the Superweeds; Cost of Compliance; An Academic’s Perspective

 



* Agriculture and Food: The Genetically Modified Crop Marches On
* Paper Reveals EU Plan to Boost GM Crop Cultivation
* Revenge of the Superweeds
* Government Supports Genetically Modified Crops In Chile
* An Alternative to Monsanto and Gene Splicing
* Cost of Compliance with Biotechnology Regulation in the Philippines: Implications for Developing Countries
* Stochastic Benefit Streams: Why Drought Tolerance is Not the New Bt
* Conumser Resistance of Biotech is Only a "Perception"
* An Academic’s Perspective on the Perceived Controversies Surrounding Biotech
* Al Gore's Talk at the BIO meeting at Chicago - May 5, 2010
* Promoting Health by Linking Agriculture, Food and Nutrition
* India: National Agri-Food Biotechnology Institute
* Organic Farming Shows Limited Benefit to Wildlife
-----

Agriculture and Food: The Genetically Modified Crop Marches On

- Clive Cookson, Financial Times (UK), May 4, 2010 http://www.ft.com

In agricultural biotechnology, the big theme is still the march of genetically modified crops across the world’s farmland. While farmers have yet to adopt genetic engineering or cloning of animals to a significant extent – even in the GM-friendly US, fears of consumer resistance to biotech meat and milk outweigh any likely benefits – they have embraced biotech plants in some of the world’s most important growing regions.

The most authoritative annual survey of GM planting, carried out by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, showed a 7 per cent annual increase last year in the area covered to 134m hectares (330m acres) in 25 countries.

But GM food crops are still concentrated in the western hemisphere. The US accounts for almost half the world’s GM planting (64m hectares), followed by Brazil (21.4m ha) and Argentina (21.3m ha).

Although India and China are big biotech growers, their GM crops are almost entirely cotton, cultivated for fibre rather than food. The picture may change soon in China, where regulators issued biosafety certificates in November for insect-resistant rice and “phytase” maize (which has an added gene to make the crop more digestible in animal feed).

“Agbio” companies continue to face strong consumer and political resistance to GM crops in Europe, where only 95,000ha were grown last year – mainly insect-resistant maize in Spain.

The industry celebrated a success in March in its long struggle to get more crops approved in Europe. After a 13-year wait, the European Commission allowed BASF of Germany to plant its GM potato called Amflora to produce industrial starch – but not spuds for human or animal consumption. Many other GM crops, approved elsewhere in the world, are still waiting for a go-ahead from the EC. Three more GM maize products are believed to be at the front of the queue.

Worldwide, the GM scene is dominated by four crops (soyabeans, maize, cotton and canola or oilseed rape), two traits (herbicide tolerance and insect resistance) and one company (Monsanto).

Herbicide-tolerant genes let the farmer spray a broad-spectrum weedkiller, usually Monsanto’s RoundUp, to kill all weeds without harming the crop. The Bt insect resistance gene, derived from Bacillus thuringiensis bacteria, reduces the amount of pesticide required to protect the crop.

Crops with combined or “stacked” traits are becoming increasingly important. This year, Monsanto will launch SmartStax maize, which has eight added genes coding for three traits. It is herbicide-tolerant and protects against insects.

GM products so far have delivered their direct benefits to the farmer rather than the consumer. A report last month by the National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC said: “Many US farmers who grow genetically engineered crops are realising substantial economic and environmental benefits, such as lower production costs, fewer pest problems, reduced use of pesticides and better yields, compared with conventional crops.”

A new wave of GM crops, to be released over the next few years, may bring more obvious benefits to the consumer, in the form of better nutritional qualities, and to agricultural production, in the form of more resistance to stresses such as drought, salinity and extremes of temperature. An important development will be the commercial launch of drought-tolerant GM maize, scheduled for 2012.

Although GM gets all the attention, there are alternative ways to use science to improve crops. For example Australia’s CSIRO announced last month a salt-tolerant wheat that yields 25 per cent more on saline soils than its parent variety.

The Australian scientists isolated two salt tolerance genes in Triticum monoccum, a wheat species that grows on poor, arid soils in the Middle East, and introduced them into durum wheat, which is widely cultivated for pasta production – through non-GM breeding aided by the latest molecular marking technology.

A more general way of introducing new traits into crops without inserting foreign genes is “site-directed mutagenesis”. Cibus, a privately owned company based in San Diego, is a leader here with its proprietary Rapid Trait Development System or RTDS. This uses the plant’s own genetic machinery to change its DNA.

Cibus has reached agreements with a variety of companies and organisations – most recently the Flax Council of Canada – to use RTDS on their crops. Stephen Evans-Freke, Cibus chairman, says the technology makes it possible to commercialise new traits more quickly than GM, because regulatory approval is much more straightforward when no external genes are introduced.

===============

Paper Reveals EU Plan to Boost GM Crop Cultivation

- Charlie Dunmore, Reuters, May 3, 2010

Brussels - Europe faces a major overhaul in the way it deals with genetically modified (GM) crops, after the European Commission sparked controversy with new plans to circumvent its cumbersome legislative review process.

The EU executive wants to let national governments decide whether or not to grow genetically modified crops without a long drawn-out review of the bloc's current GM legislation, an initial impact assessment seen by Reuters showed.

Details of the plan, which would open the door to widespread GM cultivation in Europe, provoked a furious reaction from environmentalists already angry at the EU executive's decision to approve the commercial growing of a GM potato in March.

But the plan will be a boost to biotech companies in the EU, where blockages in the current approval system have confined commercial growing to less than 100,000 hectares across the 27-nation bloc. It could also ease trade tensions between the EU and the United States, which launched a World Trade Organization dispute against the EU in 2003 after countries including Austria and Germany banned the cultivation of an approved GM maize.

The EU executive is hoping to unblock the paralysis in GM crop approvals by giving those countries that want to grow them the freedom to do so, while also sanctioning the current "GM-free" stance of several member states.

Rather than revise the legislation, which would require the agreement of the European Parliament, the Commission will try to make the change "within the existing legislative framework, if possible," the paper said. "The Commission appears intent on avoiding any democratic debate with the parliament in order to please the biotech industry and get GM crops into Europe," said Friends of the Earth campaigner Adrian Bebb.

The proposals -- due to be tabled in June -- will likely have "a positive impact on biotechnology and seed companies compared to the status quo," the assessment said. "There may be a negative impact for non-GM farmers," it added, referring to the risk of unintentional contamination of conventional farm produce by GM-crops.

Policy Options
The paper outlines several options for implementing the proposal within the existing legislative framework, and makes it clear that a key consideration will be the likely reaction of WTO countries, particularly the U.S. "Biotechnology is an important topic of transatlantic dialogue and therefore relations with the U.S. ... need to be taken into consideration when developing this initiative, irrespective of the options," the assessment said.

The first and most likely option set out in the paper is that approval for GM cultivation requests would continue to be granted at EU level following a safety assessment, but countries would then decide individually whether to grow them or not. When it comes to how member states will justify their decision whether or not to cultivate, one option is to revise non-legislative EU guidelines on the "co-existence" of GM and non-GM crops, according to the paper.

This would allow countries to specify a 5 or 10 kilometer "buffer zone" between GM and non-GM fields, which would effectively make cultivation of GM crops impossible in practice. Another option in the paper is to allow countries to cite "socio-economic" factors as the basis for their decisions, such as protecting organic production, increasing farmers' yields, or reducing the use of herbicides and pesticides.

====================

Revenge of the Superweeds

- Health Facts and Fears, American Council of Science and Health, http://www.acsh.org/

Several species of weeds have developed resistance to the herbicide glyphosate (a.k.a. Roundup), threatening crop yields in sections of farmland across the country. According to the New York Times, “The National Research Council [NRC], which advises the federal government on scientific matters, sounded its own warning last month, saying that the emergence of resistant weeds jeopardized the substantial benefits that genetically engineered crops were providing to farmers and the environment.”

“Herbicide resistance is not a new problem, but it has become a very real problem with specific weeds in certain specific areas,” says Dr. Ross. “This issue will require some novel approaches as well as application of some older technologies to fight the next round in the ongoing battle between man and weed. It’s also important to note that NRC report did not suggest that weed resistance would make genetically modified crops obsolete. It just said that the problem is real and that it needs to be managed to preserve optimum benefits from the technology.”

“Activist groups are touting this report as an argument against biotechnology,” says Stier. “This story has something in common with the unscientific attacks on genetically modified alfalfa – now the subject of a Supreme Court case – and the attacks on the herbicide atrazine: rather than sound science, they all have their ‘roots’ in the same ideological campaign against the use of modern technology in agriculture.”

=============

Government Supports Genetically Modified Crops In Chile

- Laura Burgoine, Santiago Times, May 4, 2010 http://www.santiagotimes.cl/

Agriculture Ministry José Antonio Galilea announced this week plans to introduce legislation to regulate and permit the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops in Chile. Galilea said he has already formed an advisory team to study the matter and to propose legislation in June or July this year.

Current legislation strictly limits transgenic crops to seed production, and all seeds must be exported. "Current policy incomprehensible, and we believe the best way to fix it is through legislation," said Galilea. “Without GM technology, domestic producers are at a disadvantage to compete in a globalized and competitive international market. The current legislation is extremely detrimental to the interests of our farmers.”

Chile’s scientific community is already working on genetic modifications to peaches, which if successful, could help improve Chile’s export peach deal by assuring better quality peaches with a longer shelf life.

Today, only four countries across account for 99 percent of the world’s commercial grown transgenic crops. The United States leads the way with 39 million hectares of genetically modified crops, followed by Argentina following with 13.5 million hectares. Canada has 3.5 million hectares, while China has 2.1 million hectares. Mexico, Colombia, Spain, Germany, Romania, South Africa, India, Indonesia and Australia all grow transgenic crops, but have less than 1 million hectares, according to records from the Nature publishing group.

The four main commercial GM crops are soya, cotton, canola, and corn/maize. There are 72 million hectares of non-GM Soya crops worldwide compared to 37 million hectares of GM Soya crops. With corn / maize there are 140 million hectares of non-GM crops compared to 12 million hectares of GM crops. In cotton crops there are 34 million hectares of non-GM and 7 million GM, while in Canola / rape there are 25 million hectares of non-GM crops worldwide and 3 million hectares of GM crops.

=====================

An Alternative to Monsanto and Gene Splicing

- Michael Arndt, Business Week, May 5, 2010 http://www.businessweek.com

Farmers and consumers have complained that in the U.S., at least, they really have no choice but to buy soybeans and field corn that contain genetic bits from other organisms, as I was reminded after posting this blog. Recently, I learned about a biotech company that might provide an alternative to the transgenic crops created by the likes of Monsanto and DuPont. Its first products are planned for smaller ag markets, though, such as canola and flax.

The company is Cibus Global. The privately held company was spun off from ValiGen in 2001, when management decided to narrow its focus to biodrugs. Keith Walker, a PhD biologist who, early in his career, was a Monsanto researcher, came over from ValiGen as Cibus’ president. Though Cibus is based in San Diego, I talked with Walker while he was vacationing in Las Vegas.

Here’s how he explained the different approach to bioengineering plants. (You can watch this Cibus video for more info.) Like Monsanto does when it sets out to add a new trait to a species—making it resistant to a weedkiller, say—Cibus sifts through databases to find an organism that already has that property. It then locates the exact bit of DNA that controls that function, again just like Monsanto or its rivals do.

At this point, creators of genetically modified organisms would insert that snippet into the plant’s own genes, essentially turning it into a new living thing. (Which is why many people are scared about GMOs and why governments have banned them.) Cibus also grabs that tiny string of molecules, but instead of implanting it, the company merely exposes it to the host’s DNA. This tricks the cell into thinking it’s found a mutation. To repair itself, the cell alters its own DNA, thereby incorporating the additional trait. The cell then digests and expels the foreign molecules.

Because Cibus-altered plants don’t carry genes from other species, they’re not subject to bans on GMO crops or labeling requirements. Walker told me the Cibus way is also faster and cheaper than genetic modification. To get a GMO to the marketplace costs $70 million to $100 million and takes seven to 10 years, he said. By comparison, he said, Cibus can get there in three to five years for $7 million. The higher expenses make transgenics too pricey for smaller farm crops, providing Cibus an open field, if you will, for its “mutagenic” products.

The company is finding customers. On April 22, the Flax Council of Canada announced a $6 million deal with Cibus to develop herbicide-resistant flax. Canada exports 70% of the crop to Europe, which doesn’t allow genetically modified organisms into food. Cibus aims to have its new and improved—and safe-for-Europe—flax in fields in 2015. Cibus is also working to develop canola, potatoes, rice, and sorghum that can withstand weedkillers.

After these assignments, Walker dreams of using his bioengineering Rapid Trait Development System to create organisms that can produce oils for fuel or food, or a wheat that won’t cause allergic reactions to people with celiac disease. Last fall, to deepen its pockets, Cibus agreed to sell a 50.1% interest to Makhteshim-Agan of Tel Aviv over five years. But if Cibus can prove out its technology, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it become the property of one of its giant competitors one day. They might want an alternative as much as farmers and consumers.

==========================

Cost of Compliance with Biotechnology Regulation in the Philippines: Implications for Developing Countries

- Jessica C. Bayer, George W. Norton and Jose B. Falck-Zepeda AgBioForum, 13(1), 53-62. http://www.agbioforum.org.

Direct and opportunity costs of regulation are presented for four transgenic products in the Philippines: Bt eggplant, Bt rice, ringspot-virus-resistant papaya, and virus-resistant tomatoes. Understanding the magnitude of these costs is important for evaluating potential net benefits of genetically modified crops, both for countries that are designing their regulatory procedures and for those implementing them.

Results indicate that direct regulatory costs are significant but generally smaller than technology development costs. However, the cost of foregone benefits stemming from even a relatively brief delay in product release, which might be due to unexpected regulatory delays, overshadows both research and regulatory costs. Regulatory systems must ensure that none of the steps in its regulatory process for GM products that are required to protect public safety and the environment are omitted, but unnecessary steps are costly. Direct regulatory costs appear to be declining within countries as they gain experience with more products.

Full paper at http://www.agbioforum.org/v13n1/v13n1a04-norton.htm

====================

Stochastic Benefit Streams, Learning, and Technology Diffusion: Why Drought Tolerance is Not the New Bt

- Travis J. Lybbert and Adrian BStochastic benefit streams, learning, and technology diffusion: Why drought tolerance is not the new Bt. AgBioForum, 13(1), 13-24. Full paper at http://www.agbioforum.org/v13n1/v13n1a02-lybbert.htm

The speed of Bt cotton diffusion among smallholders in poor countries such as India, China, and South Africa has been unprecedented. Hopes are high for drought-tolerant (DT) varieties that similarly reduce yield risk and have attracted substantial investments from public, private, and philanthropic sectors. We highlight important learning differences between Bt and DT that will shape diffusion patterns.

While the potential welfare benefits of DT are compelling, we caution against glossing over practical complications that farmers will face in assessing the relative merits of DT varieties. We emphasize how and why vulnerable farmers facing marginal growing conditions—ostensibly, the target beneficiaries—may be slowest to adopt DT crops. More frequent extreme drought events associated with climate change may further complicate this learning and diffusion process. Generalized water-use efficiency gains and early maturation could help improve learning in arid and semi-arid regions by conferring benefits across a broader range of rainfall outcomes.

=================

Consumer Resistance of Biotech is Only a "Perception"

- Val Giddings, BIO Convention Update, May 6, 2010 http://blogs.bio.org/

'How Public Perception Affects Adoption of Technologies that Help Feed the World' was the topic Wednesday afternoon of one of the liveliest panels we’ve seen in a while. Moderated by Sally Squires (Weber Shandwick, former Washington Post writer), the panel included Margaret Zeigler (Congressional Hunger Center), Michael Specter (The New Yorker, author of Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens our Lives), Maywa Montenegro (Seed Magazine) and Bruce Chassy (University of Illinois).

The session was well attended, nearly SRO, with almost a hundred folks in the audience. Topics ranged widely: common misconceptions about biotech and how people assess different types of risk (usually at odds with the data). Does public perception affect the adoption of biotechnology? Of course it does. But perhaps not always as one might expect. Data the world over show opposition to be more theoretical than real: folks may say they are opposed, but at point of purchase, with few exceptions, they almost always buy based on quality and cost, where biotech foods stack up very well indeed.

But the perception of consumer resistance makes political decision-makers reluctant to remove barriers, and the perception of resistance is the product of smoke, mirrors, and an aggressive, well-funded, and ruthless campaign of unrelenting mendacity by self-styled “green” groups.

The howlers: In response to a question as to how the situation could be improved, one panelist opined that “We (the sorts of folks in the audience) should “stop vilifying Alice Waters and Michael Pollan…” The last time I checked the vilification balance was pretty lopsided, with about a hundred examples originating with the mendacious for every one from the data-based pro-science camp. This is not, I am said to say, a textbook example of moral equivalence.

Another howler: One panelist offered her informed opinion that small farmers in Central America are opposed to biotech because they are skeptical of technological innovation. Would these be the same custodians of maize landraces, who have an unmatched and unbroken innovative history spanning ten millennia during which their approach to plant stewardship has made a fetish of importing germplasm, conducting experimental crosses with it, and selecting products from the results to weave into their ongoing harvests?

Third howler: A panelist suggested that the role of NGOs has been, on balance, positive in the area of biotech and food. Yes, there have been a small number of vocal NGOs in opposition, but the vast majority of them are honestly and helpfully focused on trying to improve food security for the poor of the earth.

I am glad to hear that some NGOs are doing good things on food and hunger issues. But until they break ranks with Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and Friends of the Earth to condemn their profoundly misguided, contra-factual, and anti-human campaigns against crops that reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture while increasing quality and safety of food and the economics of smallholder farming they are complicit and indictable.

But what’s a good panel without a howler or two? If you missed it, you missed it. Don’t make the same mistake next year.

=============

An Academic’s Perspective on the Perceived Controversies Surrounding Biotechnology

- Val Giddings, BIO Convention Update, May 6, 2010 http://blogs.bio.org/

Bruce Chassy is a Professor in the Department of Food Science & Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Val Giddings (LVG) interviewed* Chassy to get an academic’s perspective on the perceived controversies surrounding biotechnology:

LVG: Why is there still controversy about ag biotech after all these years?
Chassy: The science and results are clear: products of biotechnology are probably safer than any others. There is no scientific controversy or doubt about the real-world outcomes. They are all positive, good for consumers, farmers and the environment.

LVG: Then why do we keep hearing about all the risks of GM crops?
Chassy: There is a well-financed and organized global opposition to GM crops that spreads misinformation and fear. Make no mistake about it, this isn’t a grassroots opposition. It is a small handful of people that profit from higher prices for organic and GM-free foods. They are paid to block GM crops that can benefit certain countries and companies.

LVG: How can we set the record straight?
Chassy: There is nobody credible talking in favor of GM crops. The industry can’t do it, they have a clear conflict of interest. It’s not the regulators job – they regulate and stay neutral; USDA and FDA are afraid of being sued by these groups already. The food industry isn’t going to fight for GM crops, especially when they make more money from organic foods. Then there are the scientists: they know the truth, but it’s not their job to argue with the NGOs. They have labs to run, students to teach, grants and papers to write. So at the end of the day, there is nobody to advocate for an accurate and impartial representation of the facts about GM crops.

LVG: What can be done about it?
Chassy: Scientists need to speak out and realize that if someone else distorts the facts it’s their responsibility to set the record straight. An example – Jeffrey Smith claims he’s an expert on GM safety and has written several books about the dangers. David Tribe (University of Melbourne) and I analyzed all the arguments Smith makes in his book Genetic Roulette. Not one of the claims Smith makes withstands scrutiny – I would call it peer review, but Smith isn’t a scientist or a peer. You can see our work at a website we created to expose scientific hoaxes (academicsreview.org). Eventually, we hope to grow the website to cover many scientific issues about which there is a lot of misinformation.

*for the full length interview, go to gmopundit.blogspot.com/

Giddings is a genetics PhD and biotech consultant with nearly 30 years regulatory, media, and policy experience. He was a Vice President for BIO Food & Agriculture from 1997 to 2006. He can be reached at LVG@prometheusAB.com.

=====================

Al Gore's Talk at the BIO meeting at Chicago - May 5, 2010

http://www.genomealberta.ca/blogs/social-media-master-or-slave-or-just-plain-inconvenient.aspx

====================

Promoting Health by Linking Agriculture, Food and Nutrition

- June 16-18 2010. University of California-Davis http://nabc.ucdavis.edu/

NABC’s twenty-second annual conference will address one of the major issues of this century — promoting health through agriculture, food, and nutrition. With health care consuming so much of the developed world’s resources there is a critical need to understand how diet, nutrition, and the underlying agricultural production systems impact human health. The NABC 22 conference will address the science linking agriculture, food, and nutrition to health with the goal of informing both research priorities and government policies that seek to improve human livelihoods.

Agriculture and conventional food systems have provided the basis for long and healthy lives, which have improved dramatically over the last century, and much of that improvement can be traced to healthier diets. At the same time we are faced with a growing critique that conventional food systems are a significant contributor to the health crisis that developed countries are facing, particularly related to obesity and diabetes. It is with this dichotomy — agriculture and diet being both the problem and the solution to an increasing health crisis — that this conference is framed, addressing both sides of the issue.

The conference will also look at ongoing research strategies to better promote health through food and diet as well as examine how governmental regulatory systems are providing oversight of the relationship between food and health.

=====================

India: National Agri-Food Biotechnology Institute

http://www.nabi.res.in/

Mohali, Punjab (India) (Department of Biotechnology, New Delhi)

NABl is set up under the DBT and an Agri-Food Biotech Park(ABP) being set up under public-private partnership. The NABI, BPU and ABP would therefore comprise an Agri-Food Biotech cluster that would act as a “biotechnology hub” in the region. The agri food cluster has been developed to link three essential related biotechnologies of crops, food and nutrition, and carry out bench to market activity through its state and regional resource networks.

A translation unit would be set up in NABI to establish linkages in the region among relevant R&D units, Management Institute and Small & Medium industries. The unit will support, strengthen, and promote innovation through several initiatives. It will support R&D research resource units in the State and region. It will administer innovation grants in agri and food sector to create innovation ecosystem in punjab and neighboring states. It will scout early stage leads and technologies in existing institutes at Punjab and rest of the country and offer partnership for product development & commercialization. It will integrate S&T development through bottom up science & horizontal technology acquisition & development. It will establish "resource center" within existing institutes of Punjab State to enable the generation of a competitive intramural process and expand the talent pool for innovation and product development. It will facilitate traversing the complete path from discovery to market.

=========

Organic Farming Shows Limited Benefit to Wildlife

http://www.eurekalert.org/

Organic farms may be seen as wildlife friendly, but the benefits to birds, bees and butterflies don't compensate for the lower yields produced, according to new research from the University of Leeds.

In the most detailed, like-for-like comparisons of organic and conventional farming to date, researchers from Leeds' Faculty of Biological Science found that the benefits to wildlife and increases in biodiversity from organic farming are much lower than previously thought – averaging just over 12 percent more than conventional farming.

The organic farms in the study produced less than half of the yield of their conventional counterparts, so the research – published online today in Ecology Letters – raises serious questions about how we can use agricultural land to maximise food production and still protect our wildlife.

"Over the next forty years, we're going to have to double food production worldwide to keep pace with population increases," says Professor Tim Benton, who led the project. "Our results show that to produce the same amount of food in the UK using organic rather than conventional means, we'd need to use twice the amount of land for agriculture.

"As the biodiversity benefits of organic farming are small, then the lower yield may be a luxury we can't afford, particularly in the more productive areas of the UK."

Organic farms have come out well in earlier research into biodiversity and wildlife, but as these farms tend to be found in areas with smaller fields, more hedges and woodland, they start with an advantage. The Leeds project, funded under the Rural Economy Land Use programme, aimed to see if organic farming was still as good for wildlife if these landscape effects were taken out of the equation.

The research looked at two areas in Central South West England and the North Midlands, taking into account over 30 variables covering climate, topography, socio-economic conditions, land use and soil type. Thirty-two organic and non-organic farms were paired together, some in 'hotspot' regions with many organic farms and others in 'coldspots' with very few, to help identify any cumulative impacts over a wider area. Comparisons were made also between individual fields, with 192 fields sampled in all. The research looked at birds, insects (including butterflies, bees and hoverflies), earthworms and plants.

Comparing farm by farm, the researchers found a 55 per cent drop in yield compared to a 12.4 per cent increase in biodiversity. However, comparisons between larger areas found that 'hotspots' with a greater density of organic farming showed a 9.1 per cent increase in biodiversity across the board.

"If one field is managed organically without use of herbicides, that can benefit plant species in a field by field comparison, but it won't affect enough of an area to impact on pollinating insects, for example," explains co-researcher on the project, Dr Doreen Gabriel. "However, if you aggregate organic farms together, the benefits can be seen across a wider range of species."

The research also threw up some unforeseen negative impacts. Conventional farms in 'hotspots' tended to use higher levels of herbicides than those in 'coldspots' to counteract the seeds coming across from their more weed-tolerant neighbours. And numbers of small farmland birds were actually lower on organic farms, as these tend to attract birds such as magpies and jays, which prey on smaller birds.

"Organic methods may be a useful part of the land management mix for the less productive parts of the UK, particularly if policies can encourage farmers to coordinate activities to maximise the benefit to wildlife across a larger area," says Professor Benton.

"However, given the lower yield and the limited biodiversity benefit of organic farming, it isn't sustainable to promote it as the best or only method of agriculture. To meet future demands of food production, we will need to keep farming our most productive areas in the most intensive way we can – and potentially offset that by managing some of our remaining land exclusively as wildlife reserves."