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Nightmare of the GM weeds

(Friday, April 16, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Tim Utton, Daily Mail, 04/15/04:
A COUNTRY which pioneered GM farming has become a stark warning of the disaster that can result, scientists claim today.

Argentina has suffered an environmental crisis with 'superweeds' overrunning the countryside and farmers reporting health problems, experts warn.

Since 1997, genetically-modified soya has been planted over almost half the country's arable land. Now farmers are having to use more and more herbicides to control the resistant weeds, damaging the soil's fertility for generations.

A study, detailed in the respected journal New Scientist, has found that over-use of weedkillers is rendering the soil 'inert' - and directly affecting human health.

Farmers and their families living near Argentina's GM fields complain of rashes, streaming eyes and other symptoms. Some have seen their livestock die or give birth to deformed young.

Last night, British campaigners warned that Argentina's crisis highlighted the possible scenario awaiting the UK if the government pushes ahead with plans for GM cultivation. New Scientist says: 'As other (countries), including the UK, seem increasingly prepared to authorise the commercial growing of GM crops, they may be well advised to look to Argentina to see how it can go wrong.'

Last month, Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett controversially approved the growing of GM maize in Britain as animal feed.

Her approval came despite a Government-funded study which found that nine out of ten people reject commercial cultivation of GM crops without further proof of their safety for health and the environment.

Organic farmers, in particular, feared GM pollen would contaminate their crops.

Pete Riley, Friends of the Earth's GM campaigner, said: 'Sadly for Argentina, their great outdoor GM experiment is rapidly failing.

'The benefits promised by Monsanto are turning into a disaster for the country's farmers, land and environment.

'The UK must learn lessons from this ill-judged headlong dash to get Argentinian farmers converted to GM crops.'

Seven years ago, Argentina became one of the first countries to authorise GM crops, when Monsanto's Ready Roundup strain of soya was introduced.

A huge number of farmers embraced the GM strain, which is designed to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate.

They were lured by the promise of increased productivity and decreased herbicide use, two of the main 'selling points' claimed by GM enthusiasts.

Now scientists are sounding alarm bells over the 'bitter harvest' they are reaping, New Scientist reports. The GM soya growers actually found themselves using twice as much herbicide as conventional soya farmers, largely because of the herbicide-tolerant 'superweeds' that have started to spring up.

Superweeds are created when GM crops 'swop' their resistant genes with weeds - a process shown to occur in a number of studies.

Because so much herbicide is being used, the normal bacteria found in 'healthy'fertile soil are declining and the soil itself is becoming inert, research shows.

Agricultural consultant Charles Benbrook, of the Northwest Science and Environmental Policy Centre in Idaho, said: 'The country has adopted GM technology more rapidly and more radically than any other country in the world.

'It didn't take proper safeguards to manage resistance and to protect the fertility of its soils.

'I don't think its agriculture is sustainable for more than another couple of years.'

Similar problems are occurring in parts of the U.S., according to Joe Cummins of the University of Western Ontario in Canada.

Argentina and the U.S. have led the way in GM technology, accounting for 84 per cent of the GM crops planted in the world.

Ben Ayliffe, of Greenpeace, said last night: 'Despite the promises farmers are using more and more chemicals to control weeds, poisoning the soil and damaging human health.

'Argentina rushed into accepting GM and is now reaping the whirlwind.'

Last night, Colin Merritt, biotechnology manager for Monsanto, which markets Roundup Ready soya, said it had been an 'exemplary success' in South America, both environmentally and economically.

He added: 'We're shocked that New Scientist should publish such a highly biased and inaccurate article, which only quoted from two well-known anti-GM activists, and ignored the wealth of independent scientific evidence to the contrary.

'If the problems they claimed were true in the real world, why would Roundup still be used by millions of farmers every year after 30 years of safe and effective use?'

The company's GM soya was created to be resistant to the Roundup herbicide, which had already been in use for some time.