* Judgement Day could deal a killer blow to the genetic food industry
* 'Flawed GM tests must start over' says minister who set them up
With crunch GM test results set to be unveiled this week, the early signs are that they could deal a killer blow to the genetic food industry.
The Sunday Herald, 12 October 2003
Environment Editor Rob Edwards reports
All being well, Jonny Barton will tomorrow complete a long journey. The 31-year-old organic farmworker from Nairnshire is due to arrive in London, after an exhausting, 700-mile, 12-day cycle towing a coffin.
He is one of 20 determined individuals who have travelled by bike, foot or tractor to the UK capital from different parts of Britain to protest against genetically modified food. Dubbed the "GM pilgrims", they will finish their journey by parading through Westminster and delivering an anti-GM message to Downing Street.
Barton believes it could be dangerous to eat GM food. And he thinks the commercial growing of GM crops in Britain would poison the environment and damage wildlife. It would mean, he says, "the death of organic farming, and the death of the democratic right to choose safe food."
In at least one respect, he could be proved right this week. On Thursday the Royal Society in London is set to publish the long-awaited results of the GM crop trials that for the last three years have provoked one of Britain's biggest and bitterest environmental battles.
If the runes of the intensely secret process have been rightly read, it is going to conclude that the GM oilseed rape sown in Scotland has resulted in a significant loss of wildlife. The rape, along with the weedkiller it has been genetically modified to resist, has done more damage to plants and insects than farming conventional, non-GM rape.
If confirmed on Thursday, this would be a devastating verdict for the German chemicals giant behind the Scottish trials, Bayer. It would make it very hard for the government ever again to allow GM rape to be grown in Scotland. And it could immeasurably strengthen Europe's hand in its GM trade war with the US. It would also amount to a vindication for those like Barton who have campaigned against the crop trials. He began his long-distance cycle ride on October 1 at Munlochy in Ross-shire, the site of Scotland’s longest and fiercest protest against GM trials.
Plots of GM oilseed rape have been grown at Munlochy since 2000, as well as at three other locations: Daviot and Rothienorman in Aberdeenshire, and Newport-on-Tay in Fife. The aim was to investigate the impact on plant and animal life of spraying the herbicide, glufosinate ammonium, which the rape had been engineered to withstand.
Two other crops genetically modified to resist herbicides - sugar beet and maize - were grown in trials in England. The Royal Society, an august group of scientists, has accepted for publication in its journal eight papers detailing the results for all three spring-sown crops. They will be made available on the internet on Thursday.
The society has, however, refused to publish a ninth paper which summarised the results by crop type. This could just be because it repeats the information in the other papers, or because it contains more opinionated comments. In any case, a version of it will be made available on Thursday by the scientists who carried out the research.
The researchers, led in Scotland by a team from the government's Scottish Crop Research Institute in Dundee, have all sworn a vow of secrecy until publication. But despite this, there have been a series of similar leaks in recent weeks claiming to predict their findings.
The most persistent prediction is that the GM oilseed rape regime tested in Scotland will be found to cause the most damage to wildlife. There is particular concern about the loss of plants and insects, like bees and butterflies, and the fate of farmland birds.
If GM oilseed rape was grown commercially on a wide scale, large amounts of glufosinate ammonium would be sprayed across the countryside. This could wipe out weeds vital for insects and birds, triggering crashes in the populations of birds like the lark and the yellowhammer.
In England the results of the GM trials are likely to be more mixed. Although there is evidence that farming GM sugar beet also harms wildlife, reports suggest the results may give GM maize a cleaner bill of environmental health.
The reaction to the leaks by the Royal Society has been indignant, if opaque. It has attacked newspapers for running "speculative" stories for commercial gain, but not actually denied the main thrust of the stories.
The society's executive secretary, Stephen Cox, said newspaper reports had not been checked for accuracy by the scientists. "Media reports which are purportedly based on leaked information, will inevitably provide a misleading and inaccurate impression of the full contents of the scientific papers," he said.
But critics think the leaks are likely to be accurate, and point out that the implications for the GM industry and for government are huge.
"For the industry, things looks very bleak. The future for growing GM crops in Europe has been thrown into doubt," said Dr Sue Mayer, director of lobby group Genewatch UK.
"And if reports about the results of the GM trials are correct, it would be completely foolish for the government to go ahead with the commercialisation of GM crops. It wouldn't be acceptable to the public, it would have no economic benefits and it would further threaten farmland biodiversity."
The results of the GM trials will be the fourth major pronouncement on GM policy in the last four months. Three other weighty reports, all commissioned by the government, have highlighted the pitfalls rather than the advantages of growing GM crops commercially.
The most hostile was the much-criticised GM debate, which published its conclusions last month. It found widespread unease about the safety of GM and scepticism about its benefits. An overwhelming 86% of the 37,000 people who responded said they would not be happy to eat GM food, while only 8% said they would.
A report into the economics of GM crops by the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit forecast mixed fortunes. While there could be some cost and convenience benefits for farmers, the overall economic benefit to the UK, at least in the short term, was "likely to be limited". The report added: "Only a narrow range of existing GM crops are currently suited to UK conditions, and weak consumer demand is likely to limit take-up."
A third report, by a panel of experts led by the government1s chief scientific advisor, Sir David King, sounded similarly guarded about GM. Although the risks to human health from GM crops currently on the market was "very low", it cautioned that future crops "may present greater challenges in risk management", and so should be considered on a case-by-case basis.
But none of these reports, nor the anticipated outcome of the crop trials this week, have discouraged the GM industry. Its umbrella group, the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, continues to regard GM crops as safe, economic and beneficial.
The council's spokesman, Julian Little, argued that the number of people involved in the public debate was tiny, and showed that the vast majority of people weren't concerned. "It is far too early to talk about the demise of GM crops in the UK," he told the Sunday Herald.
"The only way to see what people really want is to put GM food back on the supermarket shelves and give them the choice. That choice is currently denied them."
Little, who is also a senior manager with Bayer CropScience, did not know what the outcome of the GM crop trials was. But he accepted that if the leaks were correct, the prospects for GM oilseed rape in Scotland were poor.
"You can't ignore what is the largest ecological study in the world," he said. "If it was clear that GM crops were causing unequivocal damage to the environment, the UK would have to look at that very seriously."
Clear evidence that the GM oilseed rape regime had damaged wildlife would put pressure on the Scottish environ ment and rural development minister, Ross Finnie, to end his defence of GM crops. Until now he has repeatedly insisted that he could not oppose them because he had no scientific evidence of harm.
"If it was not already clear to the Scottish Executive that GM crops are unnecessary and unwanted, then it looks set to become crystal clear by next week," declared the chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland, Duncan McLaren.
"If the results of the farm-scale trials are as predicted by some, then the Executive will have no option but to oppose the use of GM crops in Scotland. It would be a foolish politician indeed that would give the go ahead to them after they failed the government's very own testing."
Finnie will also feel the heat in the Scottish parliament from the Greens. The party's environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell, has already introduced a bill to make GM companies liable for any damage they cause farmers, in the belief that this will drive them out of Scotland.
"The field trials were always too narrow in terms of what negative effects they were looking for, but it appears that even this flawed science has uncovered serious concerns about GM," he said. "The scientific case is there for the UK and Scotland to be a GM-free zone in Europe. What we need now is action for this to happen. We need to tighten up the law to ensure that any harmful effects arising from GM now and in the future become the responsibility of the biotechnology companies."
But the Executive declined to give any hint of its intentions prior to the publication of the trial results. "Our future policy will be based on all relevant information including the outcome of the public debate, the science review - and the study on costs and benefits - as well as the results of the farm-scale evaluations," said deputy environment minister Allan Wilson. "There are no farm-scale trials now underway in Scotland and no plans for any further government-sponsored trials."
After the results have been published, they will be considered by experts on the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE). They will hold public consultations, including a meeting in Edinburgh on 4 December, and then advise the government what to do.
If evidence of environmental harm from particular GM crops is strong, ministers will have to restrict their commercial use. But they could also allow more research and planting of crops where evidence was weak, thereby cooking up a political fudge.
The acid test will be the stance taken by Finnie and his UK colleagues on the tranche of applications to the EU from US and other multinationals for permission to grow GM crops commercially. The US has complained that the existing EU moratorium on GM crops is in breach of world trade rules.
As he pedals closer to London, Jonny Barton is in no doubt what ministers should do. "The government should resist the propaganda from US state officials and US multinationals which say this technology will feed the starving," he said. "It is purely for the purpose of making money. It is greed."
GM TRIALS IN SCOTLAND
THERE have been 16 trials for genetically-modified crops conducted at four locations in Scotland over the past three years.
The company behind them was originally Aventis CropScience UK, but it changed its name to Bayer CropScience after it was taken over by the German chemicals giant, Bayer, in September 2002.
Two varieties of oilseed rape were sown, one for the winter and the other for the spring. The seeds were genetically modified by Bayer to resist the company's own chemical weedkiller, glufosinate ammonium, which was applied as the plants grew.
The GM seeds were grown alongside conventional oilseed rape, which was treated by farmers with the usual range of weedkillers and pest control techniques. The purpose of the trials was to compare how wildlife was affected by the GM and non-GM regimes.
The research was conducted by a team from the government's Scottish Crop Research Institute in Dundee under the auspices of an independent UK Scientific Steering Committee. The results are due to be published by the Royal Society in London this Thursday.
If, as suspected, the researchers have discovered that flowers, insects and birds suffer more from the farming of GM oilseed rape than from non-GM varieties, it will be a serious setback for Bayer.
Such results would also present a major dilemma for the government, in both London and Edinburgh.
'Flawed GM tests must start over'
Test results expected to lead to the commercial production of genetically modified maize are invalid, said the former minister who set them up.
An EU ban on a weed killer called atrazine means the three-year tests must start again, said former environment minister Michael Meacher.
The results due on Thursday were expected to suggest weed killers used in GM farming were more eco-friendly.
A government spokesman denied the ban meant the tests were flawed.
He said herbicides other than atrazine, which is suspected of causing cancer, had also been used in the trials.
Mr Meacher said: "We need to try the trials again with a different herbicide to see what the comparison is between that and the GM one.
"I cannot see that the government could logically, consistently, or morally go ahead when the comparison is exposed to everybody as not being a valid or a real one."
More research was also needed on the health effects of GM food and "cross-contamination" between GM crops and other plants, he added.
The findings of the trials are likely to have a huge influence on the final decision on commercial production of GM crops in the UK.
It was reported that this week's results would show herbicides used with two of the three GM crops tested - oilseed rape and sugar beet - were more damaging to insects and plants than normal weed killers.
Friends of the Earth's GM campaigner Pete Riley said: "The banning of atrazine makes the GM maize trials practically worthless.
"The government has spent millions of pounds of public money on trials comparing one dodgy system with another, instead of serious research to find a sustainable way to grow maize.
"The indications are that tests on GM oil seed rape and beet will show they have more impact on wildlife than their non-GM equivalents.
"These trials were never enough to give GM crops the green light, but they may provide enough information to give them the red one."
A Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) spokeswoman said the results were not flawed as the trials had tested other weed killers as well as atrazine.
But Britain would not make any decision on GM crops without agreement within the EU.