*New Scientist: The lark descending
*New Scientist: Starving skylarks and leaked memos plague agribiotech industry
*Dr Mark Avery: Harder times for skylarks
Quote from Avery: "Proponents of GM crops cannot have it both ways. Either their products are good at killing weeds, in which case they will threaten wildlife further; or they are not, in which case why should farmers buy them?"
The lark descending
Will maths save the skylark and destroy a fledgling industry?
New Scientist September 9, 2000
Editorial, Pg. 3
S ARGUMENTS continue to rage in the US over whether or not genetically engineered crops kill monarch butterflies, a potential British victim flew into view last week. The skylark could be a casualty of herbicide-tolerant sugar beet, warn Andrew Watkinson and his colleagues from the University of East Anglia in Norwich. For the agribiotech companies that make the herbicides and modified seeds, the timing of this finding couldn't be much worse. The British government is carrying out trials on farms to find out if herbicide-tolerant crops harm wildlife. Environment minister Michael Meacher has warned that he will ban crops if they turn out to damage biodiversity. Watkinson and his colleagues have not been out in the fields counting birds, however. Their conclusion comes from a mathematical model that predicts the fate of a weed known as fat hen("Chenopodium album"), whose seeds are a favoured food of the skylark. The model predicts that the pattern of spraying applied to herbicide-tolerant beet could severely cut populations of fat hen to below the levels found today, and leave the skylarks with no supper to sing for (see Battlefield). The researchers reckon the model could also be modified to forecast the fortunes of other farmland birds.
The agribiotech industry has rounded on the study, pointing out that skylark numbers have been falling dramatically for decades and that "paper studies" are no substitute for hard scientific data. Both statements may be true, but they don't tell the whole story. Skylark numbers in Britain have plummeted by 75 per cent over the past 25years. Their fate typifies that of many species of farmland birds in Britain, which have suffered more than any in Europe as agriculture has intensified. But for seed eaters such as skylarks, herbicide-resistant plants are just one more step on the road to intensification. The new varieties may need less weedkiller, but what is applied has a more lethal effect. Here, incidentally, is one reason why genetically modified crops have raised such passions in Britain, a phenomenon that sometimes mystifies observers from other countries. Some 76 per cent of land in Britain is under agriculture, compared with just 35 per cent in the US. So to many Britons the countryside is synonymous with farmland, and if you remove wildlife from farms the countryside becomes a wasteland. But whatever the local sensibilities, to condemn the study because it's theoretical, as industry critics have done, is plain daft.
The model may not be perfect, but the only alternative to this approach is to cover the countryside with modified crops and see how the birds fare. The government-backed crop trials now under way will only look at how biodiversity changes within the boundaries of farms, focusing on things such as densities of weeds, seeds and insects. But birds travel widely, and a few small farm trials are unlikely to reveal how their numbers will be affected by widespread planting of herbicide-tolerant crops. Mathematical models can do this, especially when good data from the farm trials are plugged into them. All of which brings us back to what the British government will do if the farm trials and studies such as Watkinson's show that, on balance, herbicide-tolerant crops do damage biodiversity. In such a case, the trials would give the government enough evidence to impose a ban under British law. But wider considerations will make this a very difficult course to steer. Pinning down indirect effects such as harm to wildlife won't be easy - it's not like being able to show that a crop is toxic. Unless the case is well made, a ban could trigger another trade war with the US, which is home to at least one of the big agribiotech companies. And before that, there's the European hurdle to jump. Under European Union rules, biotechnology companies can appeal against a ban. They will argue, as they are starting to already, that the timetablefor spraying modified crops can be changed to reduce the harmful impacts on wildlife - perhaps even improve things.
Though there is no way to confirm that farmers follow these timetables, such arguments may prove difficult to ignore. So a more canny approach for the government might be to make sure that farmers who want to sow herbicide-tolerant plants offset any harm they might cause. Farmers could be required, for example, to leave a percentage of their land to grow wild. One reason why herbicide-tolerant crops are attractive is that they promise farmers increased output, and hence profit. If this economic benefit were removed to pay for extra environmental protection, it's likely that the motivation to plant the crops would quickly disappear.
For more science news see http://www.newscientist.com
Starving skylarks and leaked memos plague agribiotech industry
September 8, 2000
New Scientist September 9, 2000
THE genetically modified foodindustry has suffered a double blow in the past week. Firstcame evidence that widespread introduction of GM crops couldindirectly threaten some of Britain's most popular farmlandbirds by depriving them of the weeds they eat. And as "NewScientist" went to press, the anti-GM group, GeneWatch UK,produced a leaked Monsanto document that stated the companywas "instrumental" in nominating experts to a UN body, andhad contacts which would help "facilitate rationalregulation". But a spokeswoman for Monsanto points out thatenvironmental groups also nominate experts to committees.
"It is unfortunate that rather than enter into meaningfuldialogue, GeneWatch has chosen instead to resort to thistype of innuendo and attack," she says. But the earliercharge that birds are threatened by GM farming may beharder to shake off. Ecologists led by Andrew Watkinson atthe University of East Anglia modelled the effects onplanting GM sugar beet on skylarks ("Alauda arvensis").
They assumed that the beet was modified to resistglyphosate, a herbicide which can eliminate virtually allof the crop's main weed, called fat hen ("Chenopodiumalbum"). Skylarks rely on seeds from the weed in the autumnand winter. The model predicts that if the GM beet isplanted by farmers who currently have difficulties incontrolling fat hen, the number of skylarks using theirfields could fall by up to 80 per cent ("Science", vol 289,p 1554). The research is criticised by CropGen, a lobbygroup funded by the GM industry, for being "a paper study".The best way to get "hard scientific data", says the group,is to conduct field trials like those under way at Britishfarms. But Watkinson points out that farm-scale trials arenot large enough to measure the impact on birds, becausethey range many kilometres for food. Source: "Science" (vol289, p 1554) For more science news seehttp://www.newscientist.com LANGUAGE: English LOAD-DATE:September 8, 2000 [Entered September 8, 2000]
Harder times for skylarks
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
Financial Times ; 08-Sep-2000
From Dr Mark Avery.
Sir, I refer to Mr Gregory Conko's letter ofS eptember 6. Although recent population declines ofskylarks (75 per cent down in 25 years) are nothing to dowith genetically modified crops, the study he criticises,which appears in the current issue of the journal Science,shows that environmentalists are right to fear that herbicides used on GM crops will make life even worse forthe skylark. Whether these fears are wholly justified will be tested by the government farm-scale evaluations which will measure the effects of GM crops and their management on weeds and invertebrates. Proponents of GM crops cannot have it both ways. Either their products are good at killing weeds, in which case they will threaten wildlife further; or they are not, in which case why should farmers buy them?
Mark Avery, Director of Conservation, RoyalSociety for the Protection of Birds, The Lodge, Sandy, BedsSG19 2DL Copyright (c) The Financial Times Limited