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GM crops fail key trials amid environment fear

(Friday, Oct. 3, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Paul Brown, The Guardian, 10/02/03: Two of the three GM crops grown experimentally in Britain, oil seed rape and sugar beet, appear more harmful to the environment than conventional crops and should not be grown in the UK, scientists are expected to tell the government next week. The Guardian has learned that the scientists will conclude that growing these crops is damaging to plant and insect life.

The judgment will be a serious setback to the GM lobby in the UK and Europe, reopening the acrimonious debate about GM food.

The third crop, GM maize, allows the survival of more weeds and insects and might be recommended for approval, though some scientists still have reservations.

The results of the three years of field scale trials - the largest scientific experiment of its type on GM crops undertaken anywhere in the world - will be published next Friday by the august Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. The results have been a closely guarded secret for months, and will be studied by scientists, farmers, food companies and governments across the world.

The study will include eight peer-reviewed papers about the effect of growing GM crops and accompanying herbicides on the plants and animals living in the fields around. The papers compare the GM fields with conventional crops grown in adjacent fields.

The overwhelming public hostility in the UK to GM crops has not been shared by scientists or the government but the results of the field scale trials are expected to be a jolt to the enthusiasts. The Royal Society refused to publish a ninth paper produced by the scientific group.

The Society's explanation was that the ninth paper was not a scientific document but a summary of findings and in effect a recommendation to the advisory committee on releases to the environment - the expert quango. The scientists involved will now themselves publish this summary at the same time as the other eight papers, concluding that two of the three crops should not be grown.

The trials were set up four years ago by the former environment minister, Michael Meacher, urged on by English Nature, the government's watchdog on the natural world, which feared that the UK's already declining farmland species might be further damaged by the introduction of GM crops.

A three-year moratorium on the commercial introduction of crops was negotiated with the GM companies Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer Bioscience while the experimental field trials took place. Despite repeated attacks by anti-GM protesters that destroyed many of the fields, the scientists decided they had enough results to be scientifically valid. Experts not involved in the trials had not expected definitive results even though hundreds of fields were used.

The numbers of weed species and various types of spiders, ground beetles, butterflies, moths and bees in fields of GM crops and the adjacent conventional crop fields were counted to see if they showed marked differences. All were treated with herbicides to kill weeds but the GM crops were modified to survive special types made by Monsanto and Bayer.

The papers accepted for publication by the Royal Society show that in GM sugar beet and oil seed rape the weeds and insects were significantly less numerous. Spraying with the Monsanto herbicide glyphosate had taken a heavy toll in the beet fields and the Bayer product glufosinate ammonium had wiped out many species in the rape fields.

For maize the reverse appears to be the case. The reason seems to be that maize fields are normally sprayed with atrazine, which kills weeds as they germinate, and is an even more savage killer than the Bayer product. But the result may be controversial because maize is particularly sensitive to competition from weeds and yields may be down. Farmers in America found glufosinate ammonium was not enough to kill competitive weeds and used a second herbicide, further damaging biodiversity.

The political fall out from the trial results is potentially enormous. It would give the government every excuse to refuse permission outright for two of the three crops on environmental grounds. One of the two legally watertight reasons for such a refusal is the environment, the other is health. Almost all of northern Europe, with similar farming conditions, would be expected to follow any British ban.

GM maize, grown in the UK as a fodder crop, may be given the green light under strict guidelines, as a concession to the GM companies and the US where a trade war looms. The US is threatening to take the EU to the World Trade Organisation if the moratorium on GM crops is continued.

The government has other minefields to negotiate before GM crops can be introduced. The agriculture and environment biotechnology commission is still wrestling with the vexed question of distances required between GM and conventional crops to avoid cross contamination and compensation schemes for injured farmers if all goes wrong.

If contamination above 0.9% occurs in conventional crops it will have to be declared and will be virtually unsaleable to food companies and all UK supermarkets. For organic farmers the threshold is even lower at 0.1%.

The majority of the commission members believe that the biotech industry should set up a fund with a levy on farmers growing GM crops to compensate any conventional farmers whose crops lose value because of cross-contamination. The biotech industry is wholly opposed to this.

The commission is also set to recommend a second statutory fund paid for by the government to compensate farmers who lose organic status for the same reason.

New legislation would be required to set up the schemes and enforce the separation distances between crops. The legally enforceable separation distances could be made larger or smaller in the future in the light of experience.

The commission meets again in December by which time a draft of proposals will be circulated.