Campaigners dismiss 'safe GM' report
Jeremy Lennard and agencies
Monday November 29, 2004
Environmental organisations reacted angrily today to claims that a newly published study on genetically modified crops in Britain presented no evidence that they harm the environment.
One of the report's principal claims - that GM crops do not deplete the soil of weed seeds needed by many birds and other wildlife - was flawed by the compilers' own admission that their test's "severely reduced" sensitivity meant that some differences between GM and non-GM trails may have been missed, according to Friends of the Earth.
The Botanical and Rotational Implications of Genetically Modified Herbicide Tolerance (Bright) project was carried out by a group of research and industrial partners coordinated by Jeremy Sweet of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany. Over a four-year period, it grew sugar beet and oilseed rape genetically modified to be resistant to herbicides in rotation with cereal crops and compared the results with conventional sugar beet and oil seed rape grown in the same rotation.
Bright's aim was to mimic normal agricultural practice and measure how GM crops performed in a crop rotation.
"Our research indicates that there was no long-term difference in weed populations in field areas using these GM and non-GM crops. In addition, growing GM herbicide-tolerant crops could provide farmers with the flexibility to improve plant diversity by only controlling weeds when they are competing with the crop," said Dr Sweet.
Friends of the Earth's GM campaigner, Emily Diamand, said the results appeared to confirm fears that if released commercially GM crops would be difficult to control and would cross-pollinate with non-GM crops, which would pose a "real threat" of contamination for conventional varieties."Conventional oilseed rape would be threatened with GM contamination, and GM 'superweeds' could add to problems for farmers. It is little wonder that GM food and crops are so unpopular," Ms Diamand said.
Greenpeace also criticised the findings of the Bright project, which was sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Scottish executive's environment and rural affairs department, Britain's national cereal growing association and five biotech companies.
"Much more extensive trials have shown these GM crops are bad for UK wildlife and no amount of small-scale tests are going to change the fact that, in the real world, GM crop contamination is inevitable," Doug Parr, the organisation's chief scientist, said.
"It's virtually impossible for farmers in Canada to grow organic oilseed rape because of contamination, while in the USA GM crops have seen farmers spraying more herbicides on GM herbicide-tolerant crops even though the first claims were that there would be less.
"Consumers don't want GM crops and the environment certainly doesn't need them. It's time this ailing industry was put to bed."
Friends of the Earth said the new research should offer little comfort to the biotech industry, adding that any suggestion it could be used to push the case for GM commercialisation would be "clutching at GM straws".
The chairman of the Bright project management committee, Windsor Griffiths, said the report would benefit government policy makers not just in Britain but across Europe.
"This four-year research project has shown clearly the benefits and limitations of GM herbicide-tolerant crops when grown in rotation with non-GM crops. The knowledge we have accumulated will be very useful for providing guidance for growers of these crops, should they be commercialised," he said.
The report's findings (pdf) were welcomed by a Defra spokesman who said the results would be "considered carefully".
"The report will be forwarded to the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment [Acre] for consideration and we expect Acre will publish its advice on the report next spring," he said.
"While this report is important and will be considered carefully, the earliest possible date for the cultivation of GM herbicide-tolerant crops in the UK is 2008," he added.
In September, a survey showed public attitudes to GM foods were hardening. Some 61% of people polled on behalf of the consumer magazine Which? said they were concerned about the use of GM material in food production - up from 56% in 2002.