21 January 2003
'SKYLARK' RESEARCH HIT YIELDS
a v. useful briefing via Peter Melchett at the Soil Association. NB "delays in glyphosate treament had a significant effect on final sugar yield"
You might find the attached Soil Association comments by Gundula on this research useful (pasted below). This is at least the third time this nonsense has been extensively reported in the national and farming press (first time was in 1999, when Monsanto took selected journalists to inspect the trial site near Ely).
Description of the research
The trials were funded by Monsanto, to identify whether herbicide tolerant GM sugar beet could be managed in a way that would benefit farmland birds by increasing weed and invertebrate levels. Trials were carried out with a glyphosate tolerant GM variety at various sites in 1999 and 2000, testing the effects of different timings of glyphosate application and spraying just down the plant rows and not inbetween the rows (band spraying). Weed and invertebrate levels were surveyed from late May to August.
The researchers conclude that increases in weed and invertebrate levels can be achieved with GM HT sugar by a specific approach: delaying applications of glyphosate, and then initially just spraying in a band down the row and only later spraying overall. They claim this can be done "without affecting yield" [but this is not true - see below]. The report "A novel approach to the use of genetically modified herbicide tolerant crops for environmental benefit" will be published in Proceedings B, a journal of the Royal Society. It is not clear if it is peer reviewed.
Sugar beet is a poor competitor with weeds and weed control is the largest variable cost in sugar beet production (£110/ha). On average farmers spray five times and c.40% of crops are also hoed mechanically between the plant rows. Sugar beet fields are therefore sparse, offering very poor nesting and feeding habitats for farmland birds. Weeds in between the plant rows have less of an effect on crops yields than weeds within the rows, hence the experiments with 'band' spraying
These are only very short-term, small-scale trials of a single crop, sugar. These findings are not from commercial situation, but trials of a completely artificial situation. Monsanto has made many claims about GM crops, few of which have materialised practice. We know from our research in North America that once GM crops are planted commercially farmers do not use them in the specific way researchers envisage and the supposed benefits do not materialise. We do not believe HT crops will reduce herbicide use. HT crops enable farmers to dramatically increase their herbicide use and reduce weed numbers, because herbicides can be sprayed at any time unlike in conventional non-GM farming where the crop plants are susceptible to herbicides. We believe this opportunity to further reduce weed levels and increase yields will be of much more interest to farmers than experimenting with ways in which they can increase weed levels for a wildlife benefit. This is what happened in North America. Moreover, after a couple of years of widespread planting of GM HT crops in North America, all sorts of new weed control problems have emerged which has resulted in even higher herbicide use and recourse to older, more toxic products.
The main flaw with this research is that the wildlife benefits would be at a cost to farmers. The key point is that "delays in glyphosate treament had a significant effect on final sugar yield" [quote from the report]. There are many ways in which HT crops can be managed and the proposed approach of delaying glyphosate applications would be economically unattractive, while the most attractive option for farmers (to apply glyphsate from early on) would actually have a negative affect on wildlife compared to conventional non-GM farming. The research report states that the wildlife benefit (increase in weeds and invertebrates) would be achieved without a yield penalty, but that is not true as this is only in comparison to non-GM crops. The research found that the GM sugar actually enables farmers increase their yields by 10% by reducing weed numbers. To achieve the wildlife benefit, farmers would have to delay their application of glyphosate but this means they forfeit 10% of their potential yield. The proposed approach is clearly therefore not a realistic proposal. Farmers are not going to voluntarily reduce their yields just for a wildlife benefit, afterall that's why the UK has had such a serious decline in farmland birds. EU subsidies for sugar beet are declining so the pressure to improve weed control and increase yields is increasing. This problem is actually exacerbated by GM crops, as the seeds are more expensive than in non-GM crops and farmers would receive lower market prices, so they actually have to increase their yields just to cover their costs. The increase in invertebrates with the band spraying approach only emerged at two of the four sites; at the others where weed levels were lower there was no consistent effect.
There is anyway no market for GM sugar. British sugar the main buyer in the UK has said it will not accept GM sugar, so this crop probably has no commercial future. There already an excellent way of increasing wildlife numbers on farms and this is through organic farming which uses no herbicides. Moreover, it is already up and running, proven to produce increases in farmland birds in commercial use, delivers a range of other environmental benefits (reduced energy use, waste reduction etc.) as well, and does not come with the long list of potential health and environmental problems that the side-effects of genetic engineering brings. Moreoover, organic sugar has a market - it is being currently produced and bought by British Sugar.
The most economically attractive use of GM HT sugar, and therefore the likely outcome in commercial use, will have a negative effect on wildlife by reducing the levels of weeds.