GM threatens a superweed catastrophe
English Nature says the new crops could lead to farmers using toxins that would devastate the countryside
By Severin Carrell
29 June 2003
Genetically modified farming will lead to a new generation of herbicide-resistant crops which could devastate the countryside, says English Nature. The Government's chief conservation agency says the inevitably far stronger weedkillers that would be needed would devastate hedgerows and verges and produce "superweeds" unless strict controls are imposed.
English Nature has warned ministers to prepare for the "worst case" scenario if they press ahead with proposals to grow GM crops. If the worst case becomes reality, the agency fears that farmers could turn to highly toxic and old-fashioned weedkillers such as Paraquat and 2,4-D because they will be faced with GM "superweeds" that can resist most modern weedkillers.
These superweeds will emerge because it is "inevitable" that weedkiller-tolerant genes will escape from GM crops such as sugar beet, maize and oilseed rape into normal plants, English Nature states. The dangerous genes will be carried by the pollen of GM crops, spread by the wind, by insects and by farmers moving between fields.
Dr Brian Johnson, a co-author of the English Nature report, said: "If you hit them with most of the conventional herbicides they just smile at you. They certainly don't die."
And - unless the use of GM weedkillers is very strictly policed - insects and birds that live off weeds, wild flowers and grasses will be killed off because farmers will be using herbicides at the wrong time of year. This would wreck the Government's multi-million- pound programmes to save endangered birds, wildlife and insects. "It may well make some of these policies unworkable," Dr Johnson said.
The "worst case" scenario could be avoided, however, if ministers conducted even more trials, and drafted detailed and binding rules on how and where farmers grow GM crops. The current field trials, due to finish this summer, have been too limited in scope, the agency believes.
English Nature's warnings - in a detailed report to the official GM science review headed by Professor David King, Tony Blair's chief scientific adviser - have been supported by Lord May, the president of the Royal Society. Writing in The Independent on Sunday today, Lord May says that without proper tests and controls, GM crops could lead to a further intensification of agriculture and harm wildlife. This would lead to "an even more silent spring" - a reference to Rachel Carson's famous 1962 book exposing the link between songbird deaths and pesticides.
Dr Johnson, a member of Professor King's panel, said one GM superweed now appears to be resistant to four types of herbicide. Experts fear that future superweeds could end up with herbicide, fungicide and insecticide resistance, unless GM crops are heavily restricted. Drafting strict rules on GM crops was "very, very important", Dr Johnson said. He continued: "If we're to reap the real benefits of these crops we want to make absolutely sure the benefits for some farmers don't disadvantage others."
Meanwhile, doctors' leaders are to investigate fears that GM foods could increase antibiotic resistance and allergies and threaten the health of babies. Leading British scientific and medical experts will debate these issues at a confidential "round table" to be held by the British Medical Association at a secret location this summer.
The talks will focus on fears voiced by scientific bodies and by the former Environment minister Michael Meacher in The Independent on Sunday last week, that new GM foods could pose unforeseen health risks for babies, pregnant women, or older vulnerable people.