On GM Crop
By Paul Brown
and David Gow
22 March, 2005
long-awaited final results of the GM trials for Britain's biggest crop,
winter oil seed rape, show that wildlife and the environment would suffer
if the crop was grown in the UK, in effect ending the biotech industry's
hopes of introducing GM varieties in the foreseeable future.
which has been keen to introduce GM crops, now has the results of the
world's most comprehensive crop study, demonstrating that the GM varieties
currently on offer would be detrimental to the countryside. Bayer CropScience,
the company that owns the patent on the GM oil seed rape being tested,
said afterwards that it was not going ahead with its application to
grow the crop in Europe.
took advantage of the government's discomfort, with Tim Yeo, the environment
spokesman, announcing that the party would not allow GM crops to be
grown in Britain unless it could be proved they were safe for people
and the environment.
The trials, whose
results were published by the Royal Society yesterday, began before
the last election when the public backlash against the government's
plans to introduce GM crops stunned Downing Street.
the then environment minister, came up with a plan to get the government
off the hook by running extensive trials of GM and non-GM crops to test
their effects on bees, butterflies, bugs, weeds and other farmland wildlife
in two farming regimes. Large fields were planted half with GM and half
with conventional crops and the results compared.
It was widely predicted
that the GM regime, which uses fewer applications of herbicide than
conventional crops, would benefit wildlife, but for three out of the
four crops tested the reverse was the case.
were particularly significant because winter-grown oil seed rape occupies
330,000 hectares (815,000 acres) of British fields and is the largest
single crop, and the one from which farmers make most money.
The main finding
was that broadleaf weeds, such as chickweed, on which birds rely heavily
for food, were far less numerous in GM fields than conventional fields.
Some of the grass weeds were more numerous, although this had less direct
benefit for wildlife and affected the quality of the crops.
The scientific results
made it clear that it is not the GM crops that harm wildlife but the
herbicide sprayed on them. Fields containing conventional crops are
sprayed with a herbicide which usually kills weeds before the crops
emerge but herbicide-tolerant GM crops can be sprayed later.
The results on this
crop were that the patented glufosinate-ammonium weedkiller was so effective
that there were one third fewer seeds for birds to eat at the end of
the season than in a conventional crop. Two years later there were still
25% fewer seeds, even though the weedkiller had not been applied again.
Les Firbank, who
was in charge of the trials, said: "These weeds are effectively
the bottom of the food chain, so the seeds they produce are vital for
farmland birds, which are already in decline. There were also fewer
bees and butterflies in the GM crops. All the evidence is that it is
the herbicide that makes the difference to the wildlife." Mark
Avery, of the RSPB, said: "Six years ago, before the farm-scale
trials, we were told that GM crops were good for wildlife and good for
farmers' profits. Now, against all expectations, we are told they are
bad for both. It is bad news for the biotech industry."
Elliot Morley, the
environment minister, will await the advice of the government's advisory
committee before making a final decision, but said the trials demonstrated
the government's "precautionary approach on GM crops".
The European commission
will today reluctantly give the go-ahead for other GM seeds and plants
to be used commercially in Europe and demand that Austria, Luxembourg,
France, Germany and Greece lift national bans.
Although aware that
the decision will provoke a public backlash and be open to challenge,
the 25 commissioners, according to documents seen by the Guardian, say
they have no alternative but to "fulfil their legal obligations"
and force through a decision because a regulatory committee of national
scientific experts and then ministers could not reach a majority decision.
in a trap. Though these are decisions bequeathed by the previous commission,
we are expected to break the deadlock - and take the political flak,"
a senior official said.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005