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Largest ever study finds GM crops 'harm wildlife'

Editor's note: Following this story is a news release included as background from the perspective of Pesticide Action Network. -- RS

(Thursday, Oct. 16, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- John Mason and Clive Cookson, Financial Times: The world's biggest scientific experiment into the environmental impact of genetically-modified crops, conducted on British farms, has shown that GM rapeseed and sugar beet are more harmful to wildlife than conventionally grown plants.

The results, published on Thursday by the Royal Society, are vital for helping ministers in Britain and other European countries in deciding whether to lift their ban on the crops and approve the commercialisation of GM technology despite consumer opposition.

However, the trials yielded a mixed message, with some groups of wildlife faring better in fields sown with genetically modified, herbicide-tolerant maize.

Scientists unveiling the results at the Science Centre in London said some insect groups, such as bees in beet crops and butterflies in beet and spring rape, were recorded more frequently in and around conventional crops because there were more weeds to provide food and cover.

In contrast, there were more weeds in and around the GM herbicide-tolerant maize crops, more butterflies and bees around at certain times of the year, and more weed seeds - an important source of food for birds.

Researchers stressed that the differences they found were not a direct result of the way in which the crops had been genetically modified. They arose because the GM crops gave farmers taking part in the trials new options for weed control.

Responding to the results, Margaret Beckett, environment secretary, said the government would reflect carefully on both the scientific information and a public debate held around the country in the summer.

"I have said consistently that the Government is neither pro-nor anti-GM crops - our over-riding concern is to protect human health and the environment, and to ensure genuine consumer choice," she added.

Former environment secretary Michael Meacher, who originally launched the trials but has since become a leading critic of GM crops, said the results made a "decisive" case for banning genetically modified sugar beet and rapeseed.

"In the case of the other, clearly fresh trials now need to be undertaken. Until that is done there is no environmental case for allowing GM maize," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

The scientific value of the UK trials has been widely recognised by the biotech industry and GM sceptics, although both sides remain locked in disagreement over their interpretation.

The Agricultural Biotechnology Council, the industry lobbying group, said environmental fears that GM crops would wipe out wildlife were scaremongering. None of the findings supported a ban on GM crops.

Paul Rylott, ABC chairman, said the farm scale evaluations were not "GM on trial" but confirmed that the technology was a tool that could be used in different ways, with different outcomes.

"These results confirm what industry has long argued. The flexibility of GM crops allows them to be grown in a way that benefits the environment...It is now time to move forward with responsible, case by case introduction of GM crops to the UK. British farmers and consumers should enjoy the economic benefits and wider choice that these crops will bring," he said.

Monsanto, the US agrochemicals group, said it remained "absolutely committed" to introducing GM crops in the UK, despite a decision on Wednesday to close much of its European seed breeding headquarters in Cambridge.

"Monsanto's announcement [to close its seed business] doesn't affect GM in any way. They are all conventional crops. Monsanto's GM research is all done in the [United] States," the company said.

The UK trials were carried out over a three-year period using only herbicide-tolerant GM crops, not those bred to be insect-resistant. The conclusions over GM maize may be affected by the proposed European ban on atrazine, the weedkiller, which was used extensively in the experiment.

There are currently no GM crops being grown in the UK and none have been cleared for commercial cultivation. Mrs Beckett said the necessary regulatory approvals could not be granted until next spring at the earliest and would depend on advice from the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment - a statutory advisory body.


Pesticide Action Network UK Press release 11 am Wednesday 15 October 2003

GM trials - or GM on trial?

Pesticide Action Network UK claimed today that the genetically modified (GM) maize trials, whose results will be released tomorrow, cannot provide guidance for actual pesticide use or the effects of these GM crops on the environment.

The trials used only the herbicide glufosinate ammonium, whose trade name is "Liberty", to control weeds in the GM crops. But evidence from America shows that up to 90% of farmers growing "LibertyLink" GM maize buy a pre-packaged mix of glufosinate ammonium and atrazine to control their weeds.(1)

Atrazine, which was used on the control crops in the British trials, has been considered acceptable for use but was effectively banned for use in agriculture in Europe last week.(2) It persists in ground water and is an endocrine-disrupting pesticide that will confuse animal hormone systems.

Maize farmers in the UK have been using increasing amounts of atrazine in recent years. It seems highly likely that if UK farmers grow GM maize, they would want the same mixed formulations as US farmers: if not with atrazine then with other powerful herbicides.

Alternatively, farmers may use increased doses of glufosinate ammonium to control weeds. Although there are company assurances that glufosinate is 'totally benign',(3) a number of concerns have been identified at high doses.(4)

A sound strategy for pesticide reduction needs to be based on whole crop management, and not on a technology that requires the use of chemical herbicides. But efforts to investigate ecological methods of pest management are declining as commercial interests drive agricultural research. GM crops are promoted as the new technology with the potential to reduce both insecticide and herbicide use. But the available GM crops on the market are almost all owned and sold by agrochemical corporations, and are designed to sell a technology rather than develop a system.(5)

Some of the GM-linked herbicides are considered 'safe' compared to earlier generations. But increasing applications of a narrow range of herbicides associated with GM crops are likely to produce health and environmental side effects with these chemicals. Some problems are already emerging.

The most used GM-linked herbicide is Monsanto's glyphosate, the basis of 'RoundUp Ready' GM crops. Widely used in conventional agriculture, it is promoted as one of the least hazardous herbicides. It is now being found in groundwater in Denmark at a rate five times more than the allowed level for drinking water in Europe.(6) As a result Denmark imposed a ban on glyphosate spraying from 15 September 2003.

Cross-pollination between GM plants and wild relatives will create superweeds. And GM plants will escape (known as "volunteers") and grow in unwanted places. More sprays will be used to control these weeds. A group of Canadian farmers, who visited Britain earlier this year to point out these dangers, said they have been forced to revert to 2,4-D, an old and hazardous pesticide, on volunteer oil seed rape (called canola in Canada).(7) Another problem if GM crops are widely grown will be resistance of insect or weed pests to the linked chemicals.

Commercial production of the GM crops on trial would conflict with the UK government development of a new 'national pesticide strategy' by the end of 2003 to minimize pesticide use.(8) Barbara Dinham, Director of PAN UK, says "the government needs to ensure that this strategy will reduce the use of pesticides in the UK. What is needed are sustainable systems that will eliminate the hazards and risks to health and the environment of pesticides."(9)

With the increasing pressure on developing countries to allow production of GM crops, and emotive language that GM is the best solution to world hunger, it is vital that the UK sets high standards and fully tests the safety of the technology. GM technology is not addressing the basic needs of agricultural development and poverty, which is to increase access to safe and affordable food and pay farmers a fair price for their crops.

British farmers don't need GM crops but they do need support in shifting to safer and more sustainable pest management strategies, as demanded by consumers, public interest groups and as promoted by an increasing number of EU Member States. PAN UK urges the British government to make sure our farmers don't fall behind in the move to produce safer food and a healthy environment.


PAN UK: Telephone 020 7274 8895

Barbara Dinham, Simon Ferrigno, Roslyn McKendry, David Buffin


(1) Professor Mike Owen of Iowa State University estimated at least 75% and probably 90% of the pre-packaged mixes bought by US farmers growing "LibertyLink" maize contain atrazine along with glufosinate ammonium. Aventis (now Bayer) sells the product as Liberty ATZ [atrazine].

(2) Local authority use of atrazine in the UK was banned in 1992 because use on hard surfaces resulted in it going straight into drains and showing up in groundwater.

(3) Dennis Campbell, Bayer Crop Science, Newsnight, 25 June 2003.

(4) Glufosinate ammonium fact sheet, Pesticides News, December 1998, 42:20-21.

(5) In 2002, herbicide-tolerant crops represented 67% of GM sales and insect resistant crops (incorporating Bacillus thuringiensis) made up 20%. The balance is largely 'stacked' genes incorporating both herbicide and insect resistance.

(6) Based on tests done by the Denmark and Greenland Geological Research Institution (DGGRI) in an as yet unpublished article, see http://politiken.dk/VisArtikel.sasp?PageID=269614 25may03

(7) Sue Mayer, GM cotton: implications for smallscale farmers' , PAN UK, 2002; Seeds of Doubt, Soil Association, 2002; Canadian oil seed rape (canola) farmers, Portcullis House, London, 2003.

(8) The UK pesticide minimization strategy will implement the European Union's Sixth Environmental Action Plan to "Reduce the impacts of pesticides on human health and the environment and more generally to achieve a more sustainable use of pesticides consistent with the necessary crop protection."

(9) Breaking the Pesticide Chain: the alternatives to pesticides coming off the European Union market, Friends of the Earth and PAN UK, July 2003.