"No wonder Monsanto is leaving the country." - Guardian
The Guardian's coverage - some of it!
*Two GM crops face ban for damaging wildlife
*Case not proven
*Birds and the bees: how wildlife suffered - scientists surprised
*How the debate unfolded
The Farm Scale Evaluations of spring-sown genetically modified crops A themed issue from Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences Series B Volume 358 Issue 1439 29 November 2003
Two GM crops face ban for damaging wildlife
Paul Brown and John Vidal
The Guardian, Friday, October 17, 2003
Two GM varieties, oil-seed rape and sugar beet, face a Europe-wide ban after long-awaited field-scale trials showed that the crops damaged wildlife, and would have a serious long-term effect on bee, butterfly and bird populations.
Three years of trials growing GM crops alongside conventional crops, the largest field study undertaken, has provided a legal basis for banning the two crops under European Union rules, which say that either health or environmental detriment must be proved.
The government is now faced with an embarrassing about-turn on its enthusiasm for GM technology. Loss of birdlife in the countryside has been put forward as a key "quality of life" indicator by the government and it is pledged to reverse the trend.
Scientists from the independent panel set up to conduct the field trials were surprised that the results - revealed in the Guardian earlier this month - were so dramatic. In the case of conventional oil-seed rape, five times as many weed seeds survived, providing food for birds like skylarks, than in the GM field. The results were uniform across the country, giving Professor Chris Pollock, chairman of the scientific panel, confidence that the results would be the same across all of Europe.
David Gibbons, another panel member, said the results were "unexpectedly dramatic. There were very big differences, three to five times more seeds, for example. There will be less food for birds if [the GM crops] are grown commercially".
Ministers were cautious although Elliot Morley, the environment minister, said the results showed "GM crops had severe implications for wild birds". The government would await advice from the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (Acre) but he said: "I cannot see any European government ignoring these results and their affect on wildlife."
There has been huge public hostility to GM crops found in the widest public consultation on a single issue. The government also has to contend with other recent scientific findings that GM genes could disperse in the countryside and create superweeds. It has been told by the Cabinet Office that there is no economic benefit to Britain from the technology now, and to grow GM crops might cause civil unrest.
Acre recommended GM oil-seed rape in 1997, saying it could see no danger to the environment.
A question mark hangs over a third crop, GM maize, which did well in the trials compared to conventional maize. At least part of the trials will have to be repeated if they are to be conclusive, another scientific panel member, Dr Geoff Squire, from the Scottish Crop Research Institute, said.
Conventional crops which did so badly in the maize trials in conserving wildlife compared with GM crops had been treated with a powerful herbicide called Atrazine which is to be banned. New tests will be done with a less virulent herbicide before deciding which of the two types of maize is better for the environment.
Michael Meacher, the former environment minister who set up the trials with industry in 1998, said that two of the three crops had been shown to be indisputably bad for the environment, and the third would have to be re-tested with another herbicide.
"The government said that if the trials showed harm to the environment then they would not proceed with GM. We've always known the public is hostile, and now the science shows the same. That settles the argument," he said.
Almost all Britain's leading environment, conservation, wildlife, countryside and consumer groups called for the banning of GM crops or for more tests. "We now have confirmation that GM crops harm the environment, make no economic sense and are deeply unpopular. Tony Blair must stand up to US pressure and declare Britain GM-free," said Tony Juniper, of Friends of the Earth.
Scientists were more cautious. Professor John Lawton, head of the Natural Environment Research Council, said: "We have a wealth of new information about the biodiversity of the UK's major habitat, agricultural land, and rigorous data that will be of great value to decision makers."
The GM industry took a different view. "This evidence shows that GM crops are more flexible and can enhance biodiversity," said Dr Paul Rylott, of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, which represents Monsanto, Syngenta and other leading GM companies.
Case not proven
Leader, The Guardian, Friday October 17, 2003
No wonder Monsanto is leaving the country. Just a day after the US company closed its UK cereal business, the government's field trials into GM technology found that Monsanto's genetically modified sugar-beet product produces fields with fewer butterflies, bees and weed seeds than conventional crops. The results cannot be easily discounted. They also found that GM spring rape, this time sold by another multinational Bayer, reduced wildlife and wild vegetation where grown. The one piece of good news for the industry - that that GM maize might attract more wildlife than its unmodified equivalent - was undermined by the fact that more work was needed to confirm this. If the government wanted more reasons not to embrace commercial cultivation of genetically modified crops then it need look no further than yesterday's findings.
What the field trials demonstrate is the price of farming practices which intensify production. The crops tested in the field trials were designed to be herbicide-resistant - allowing weeds to be killed even among standing crops. But the last few decades have seen less space for wild plants and wildlife, which means less habitat and less food for animals and birds. This is an irreplaceable loss to the countryside which once teemed with the sights and sounds of creatures on and above the ground. Given that a government study has already cast doubt as to whether there are are any positive economic benefits to farmers or consumers from the current batch of GM crops, there appears to be a better case to give up than go on with the technology.
Certainly when the Guardian broke the news of these field trials last week, the European health commissioner made it clear that any threat to wildlife would be enough reason to keep Britain's moratorium on growing GM crops. Such a move would be popular - given the depth of public hostility to GM. Retaining the ban for the two GM crops with proven malign effects on biodiversity seems easily within ministerial grasp. Yet the government, led by a prime minister who is sympathetic to GM technology, is still pondering the subject. Ministers could justifiably argue that since we are in the middle of a process they would not want to pre-judge its conclusions.
It must be clear to anyone weighing the evidence for and against GM what the judgment should be. Maybe the reason government is only inching towards a decision is that it is being pulled in two different directions at once. In Europe and at home, the public is antipathetic to the idea of GM crops. In the US, the opposite is true. As a result the EU has not seen commercial growing of GM crops since 1998, while America is the world leader in biotech crops. The result of Europe's moratorium is that American farmers cannot export their seeds or their model of agribusiness across the Atlantic. They are becoming increasingly determined to do so.
This week the EU's environment commissioner Margot Wallstrom accused US biotech interests of trying to "force" GM crops on Europe. Caving in to American trade threats will certainly not inspire consumer confidence. Nor will industry-inspired research or slick PR campaigns by big business. Ministers have to realise that new technologies make people uneasy - especially in agriculture where their track record is patchy. People worry about food safety and are concerned about constant change that overturns all that went before. It is also true that nothing can be completely safe and introducing too many safeguards carries a risk that useful innovations are discarded. The government has yet to find an argument that has convinced the public that GM is a green revolution that 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.
Birds and the bees: how wildlife suffered
Result of £5m trial surprised scientists
Paul Brown, environment correspondent
The Guardian, Friday October 17, 2003
The farm scale trials were the largest and most thorough of their kind in the world. Scientists had never previously been able to observe how changing farm practices are affecting wildlife across the country. They cost £5m and lasted four years.
The trials were designed to test whether weeds and insects fared better in fields of conventional crops or crops which had been genetically altered to be resistant to a single herbicide.
In GM crops it meant that 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 under control.
The trials were held because there had already been a steady decline since the 60s in the number of weeds because of intensive agriculture. As a result, there had 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 oil-seed rape compared with the GM variety. The results were also remarkably consistent across England, Scotland and Wales, although scientists had expected regional variations. This led them to believe the results would apply across the whole of Europe.
There were 273 field trials, 68 fields of maize, 67 of spring oil-seed rape and 66 of beet, both for sugar and fodder. Studies on winter oil-seed rape are still to come.
The GM maize and rape were resistant to Liberty (glufosinate-ammonium) made by BayerCropScience, 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.
The researchers monitored the plants and animals in the fields, around the ploughed edges of the fields, before, during and after the crops were grown. Each field was visited 15 to 20 times a year.
Researchers measured the number of grasses and broad-leaved weeds and calculated the weight of the dried 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 scientists 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 yellow hammer - 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 (which eat other 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 had 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. <P>Although there were never many bees and 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, and will be unlikely to recover.
Spring oil-seed rape
There was 70% less volume of weeds in GM crops and 80% fewer broad-leaved weed seeds. Springtails were significantly more abundant in GM crops 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 late in the year. The GM herbicides are used later in the year so the weeds are bigger when they are killed, providing more food for springtails. The spiders were probably feeding on the springtails.
Both the density and size of broadleaved weeds was three times higher in the GM maize fields 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 researches stress that even in GM fields numbers were low. Insects were found in similar numbers in both.
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 might benefit.
The trials found fewer weeds in spring rape and beet fields and butterfly numbers were significantly lower. In the short term butterflies could move elsewhere to find plants to feed on but in the longer term the effect might be important. There were one third fewer butterflies in GM beet crops in July than in conventional crops and in GM spring rape it was half.
Numbers of birds were not studied directly but farmland birds rely heavily on weed seeds for survival, especially over the winter. For GM beet, weed seeds were reduced by 70% and for GM oil-seed 80%. In addition, for GM spring rape the reduction in seed meant that while the seedbank (the number of seeds in the soil) doubled following conventional crops, it did not increase at all following GM crops. This suggests that GM spring rape plantings will make worse the long term decline in plants, some of which will be important to the diets of farmland birds.
The results for GM maize were the opposite with twice as much "seed rain" on the GM halves of the field.
These thrive where there are weeds in grassland and uncultivated farmland but are generally low in arable fields. There were no differences in the numbers of bumblebees on margins in conventional or GM crops for beet maize or spring rape. While numbers are unlikely to be affected by a lack of weeds in any one year, because they will search elsewhere for food, in the longer term it could have an impact by seriously depleting weed populations within fields. Any reduction in long-term weed numbers could exacerbate the current decline in bumblebee populations in the UK.
One species of seed-eating ground beetle, Harpalus rufipes, is common in arable fields all over the UK. The beetles flourished in conventional spring rape and beet crops later in the season when weeds were producing lots of seeds, but did less well in the GM equivalents because there were fewer weeds and seeds. However, the researchers observed more beetles in GM, rather than conventional, maize crops. If GM crops were grown more extensively than conventional crops the effect on this beetle could be significant over years.
Outright ban, caution or green light?
All sides draw comfort from report
The Guardian, Friday October 17, 2003
Reactions to the report varied from calls by environment groups for an immediate ban on GM crops to pleas by biotechnology companies for the government to decide in their favour.
Consumer groups urged the government to do more tests and not bow to industry pressure. Monique Warnock, of the Consumers' Association, said: "Today's results have confirmed our concerns that commercialisation of GM will destroy consumer choice once and for all. The GM crops evaluated cannot exist side by side with conventional crops without contamination."
Environment groups wanted immediate bans on the crops. Stephen Tindale, head of Greenpeace and a former adviser to the environment minister, Michael Meacher, said: "These trials clearly show that the alleged benefits of GM do not exist. For years the GM corporations have been claiming that their crops would reduce weedkiller use and benefit wildlife. Now we know how wrong they were."
Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth, said: "These trials have shown that GM oil-seed rape and beet cause more damage to the environment than even conventional crops. The results will force Tony Blair to show who he really represents - the British people or Bush and the multinationals.
The Agriculture Biotechnology Council, which represents GM companies Bayer, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta, said the tests "were not GM on trial". "As this report shows, genetic modification is a tool which can be used in different ways with different management practices resulting in different outcomes."
Cropgen, an industry-funded pressure group, said the government should decide in favour of the crops. "Millions of farmers across five continents are taking advantage of GM technology. Are British farmers to be told that they cannot have access to these same benefits?"
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, with more than a million members, said that two of the crops should be banned because of their adverse effects on wildlife. "Ministers have no choice now but to ban GM beet and GM spring oil-seed rape", said Dr Mark Avery, RSPB head of conservation.
The National Trust, with three million members, urged caution. "These ... inconclusive results highlight how much more work is required before the government can draw any definitive conclusion on the introduction of GM crops."
Margaret Beckett, the environment secretary, said the results would "inform" the government's position and would be forwarded to all other EU member states. "I shall reflect carefully on these results. The government is neither pro- nor anti-GM crops. Our overriding concern is to protect human health and the environment, and to ensure genuine consumer choice."
The Conservative party urged caution. "The evidence published today would not justify a decision to authorise the commercial growing of GM crops. There should be no blanket approval," said David Lidington, shadow environment secretary.
Local groups have taken part in the destruction of many of the trial crops over the past few years. "[The tests] represent a huge setback to the GM crop industry, and vindicate everything the anti-GM campaigners in Fife and elsewhere in Britain have been saying", said a member of Fife Against GMOs.
Sir Ben Gill, president of the National Farmers Union, said: "The decision on whether to allow these crops to be grown commercially must be taken on a case-by-case basis. Studies to develop best practice for the management of these crops ... will be important if farmers are to deliver maximum environmental benefits."
Patrick Holden, of the Soil Association, speaking for organic farmers, said: "GM is taking farming in a direction irrelevant to wildlife and to consumers. The UK should develop its farming industry in line with government policy, which is to respond to the wishes of consumers - who definitely don't want GM."
Kathryn Tulip, who has been acquitted of crop damage several times, said: "If Tony Blair ignores public opinion on GM as blatantly as he did on Iraq he can expect widespread direct action in the fields."
Dr Mark Tester, senior lecturer, department of plant sciences, Cambridge University, said: "To generalise and say all GM is bad, or all GM is good is a crude over-simplification, and these new results provide classic evidence of the complexity of the real issues."
Dr Sue Mayer of science watchdog group Genewatch, urged caution. "These results should not be seen as a green light for GM maize. Two unsustainable systems were being compared and experience in the US shows the trials were not representative of what would happen in reality."
How the debate unfolded
The Guardian, Friday October 17, 2003
1997 Widespread public opposition to government plans for early introduction of GM crops. Concern expressed by the government's advisory committee on novel foods and advisory committee on releases to the environment that plans for GM commercial farming were happening too quickly. Both urged caution
March 1998 English Nature fears that GM crops might damage wildlife
May 1998 Royal Society concluded that the use of GM plants potentially offered benefits in agricultural practice, food quality, nutrition and health
October 1998 Farm-scale trials set-up by Michael Meacher, environment minister, to see whether there was more wildlife in fields with GM crops than conventional
January 1999 Voluntary agreement with bio-tech companies to suspend all commercial planting of GM crops for three years until farm trials completed
August 1999 28 Greenpeace volunteers arrested destroying GM crop trials
September 2000 Jury acquits Greenpeace protesters who claimed they were acting to prevent genetic pollution
2001/2002 Crop destruction continues but scientists say enough remain standing to get good scientific results
February 2002 Royal Society issues more cautious second report on GM and says more work is required on health and environment
July 10 2003 Cabinet Office report says no financial or consumer benefit to grow GM crops in UK at present, warns of potential civil unrest.
July 21 Committee under Sir David King, government's chief scientist, says caution required and that there is a need to protect both the consumer and the countryside.
24 September Results of government sponsored GM Nation public debate comes out 5 to 1 against GM crops being grown in UK
October 10 Scientists warn GM oil seed rape would create hybrids and possibly weeds resistant to herbicide
October 14 Research shows that GM pollen from oil seed rape could not be contained by separating crops
October 16 GM trial results released by Royal Society
November Professor King to reconvene science review panel to consider new evidence since its first report
November 25 and December 4 Government advisory committee on releases to the environment holds two public meetings of scientists to consider the results of the trials
December The Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission to report on separation distances needed between crops and liability and compensation schemes required to prevent conventional and organic farmers losing their livelihoods as a result of GM
Spring 2004 Government to decide which GM crops can be grown in Britain - if any [but might try and postpone till after next election!]