GM test results already in doubt
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent
Publication of the results of the UK's study of genetically modified
crops, the biggest conducted anywhere in the world, has already
Scientists who tested three GM crops found more damage to wildlife
from two, oilseed rape and sugar beet, than from their conventional
A third biotech plant, a maize, was better for wildlife than normal
But some of the researchers say part of the trials will need
repeating, as a key herbicide used is being phased out.
The dispute over the validity of the results bears out the concerns of
some opponents of GM crops, who have been warning that the trials were
If atrazine is withdrawn, we'll have to look at maize again
Professor Geoff Squire
The farm-scale evaluations (FSEs) looked at how GM herbicide-tolerant
(GMHT) crops might affect farmland weeds and insects, both of them
important food sources for wild creatures.
The GMHT crops can be sprayed with a particular weedkiller and still
prosper while "pest" plants in the field are killed.
Critics said the trials were too narrowly focused, ignoring other
possible effects like damage to consumers' health, cross-pollination
with other plants, harm to soil organisms, and the long-term transfer
of modified genes.
They also said the maize tests were invalid and would have to be
repeated, because the herbicide used on the conventional maize was
atrazine, to be phased out by the European Union.
They were concerned because they thought its eventual replacement
might well be more wildlife-friendly, cancelling out the advantage
which GM maize appears to enjoy.
These doubts clearly weighed with the researchers. In a commentary on
the FSEs, they write: "The actual effects... were remarkably
consistent for each crop.
"This finding gives us confidence that the findings would represent
what would actually happen under large-scale growing, unless the
management regimes altered somewhat, for example if... atrazine was no
longer allowed on maize crops..."
The chairman of the FSE independent scientific steering committee,
Professor Christopher Pollock, sees no problem with the maize tests.
He told BBC News Online: "Atrazine is in current use, so the data are
consistent and have value. Calls for the trials to be restarted are
perhaps less than wholly appropriate."
The leader of the research team, Dr Les Firbank, was less certain. He
said: "If the management systems changed, we'd have to recalibrate our
results, look again at our data, and possibly get new data. But we
wouldn't have to start again from scratch."
But another member of the team, Professor Geoff Squire, went further.
He told BBC News Online: "The difference we found between conventional
and GM crops is explained by the timing. The conventional herbicides
zap the weeds fairly early on, leaving them time for a later surge.
"With GM herbicides you can get into the crop and get the weeds later,
so they have no chance to grow back.
"With atrazine, it kills so much of the wildlife because of its
persistence and its toxicity.
"Obviously, if atrazine is withdrawn, we'll have to look at maize
again. This is a package, the GM crop and the herbicide.
"If either element changes, we shall have to revisit it. I think this
is a view shared among the research team."
The scientists grew the GM plants and their conventional equivalents
side by side, and then observed the wildlife among the crops and at
the field margins.
Some insects, such as bees (in beet crops) and butterflies (in beet
and rape), were found more frequently in and around the conventional
crops because there were more weeds to provide food and cover.
There were also more weed seeds in conventional beet and rape crops
than in their GM counterparts. But some groups of soil insects were
found in greater numbers in the GM beet and rape crops.
In contrast, growing GM maize was better for many groups of wildlife
than conventional maize. There were more weeds in and around the
biotech maize crops, more butterflies and bees at certain times of
year, and more weed seeds.
The researchers stress that the differences they found are not a
result of the way in which the crops have been genetically modified.
They arose because the GM crops gave farmers taking part in the trial
new options for weed control. That is, they used different herbicides
and applied them differently.
The results will now be assessed by Acre (the Advisory Committee on
Releases to the Environment), which will advise the government on
Ministers will decide whether to allow GM crops to be grown
commercially in the UK later this year, or early in 2004.
The GM rape tested was a spring variety. A winter rape is also being
investigated and the results of its evaluation will be published next
Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2003/10/16 14:54:58 GMT