The UK Farm Scale Evaluation (FSE) results were released on Oct. 16, 2003.
The three-year field trials were designed to examine the effects of weed
management practices - including use of herbicides and practices enabled
by GM crops -- on weed and invertebrate populations. The FSE trials focused
on three crops -- maize, sugar beet, and oilseed rape - and the results
are now available as a series of eight scientific papers in the Philosophical
Transactions of the Royal Society B.
These peer-reviewed papers include a large amount of data, much of which
has not been reported through the media. It is important to consider all
of the data that has been produced and to examine the results and lessons
in the broad context of agricultural systems and the environment.
-- The development of genetically modified herbicide tolerant (GMHT)
crops using modern biotechnology has expanded the herbicide and weed management
options available to farmers. Farmers routinely control weeds to reduce
weed competition with the crop for nutrients, water and sunlight that
are needed to optimize crop productivity and yield.
-- The FSE results demonstrate that differences in the choice of weed
management approach can lead to differences in weed survival and in the
wildlife populations dependent on weeds for growth and development.
-- The differences in weed and invertebrate densities reported in the
FSEs are not an inherent property of the GM crops themselves, but instead
are due to the particular weed management practices examined in the various
-- The results of the FSEs cannot be generalized beyond the UK agricultural
ecosystem and the three crops and weed management systems studied.
-- When considering biodiversity, the FSE results show that some important
effects are due more to the crop - whether it is conventional or GM -
than to the practices used for weed control. These differences are inherent
to the crop and the association of the crop with certain weeds and wildlife
species. The choice of crop to be grown is made by the farmer and is based
more on experience and market factors than on relative impacts on biodiversity
verses other crop choices.
-- For the vast majority of invertebrates measured, no statistically
significant differences were seen in their yearly totals. However, there
were a number of differences measured between weed management regimes
employed in the conventional and GMHT crop.
-- The weed management regimes used in two of the conventional crops
resulted in more weeds present for food or as cover for wildlife than
the weed management regimes used with similar GMHT crops. For example,
the scientists found more bees in beet and more butterflies in beet and
spring rape with conventional weed management due to the presence of more
-- Conversely, the weed management regime used with GMHT maize resulted
in more weeds and weed seeds, and more butterflies and bees at certain
times of the year in and around the GMHT maize, than in maize with a conventional
weed management regime.
-- The weed management regimes employed in the FSE trials relied on different
herbicides, different timings and number of herbicide applications, and
different quantities of herbicides applied to provide weed control. In
GMHT beet and GMHT maize, the quantity of herbicides applied was reduced
significantly compared to the weed management regimes used in the conventional
beet and maize crops. The quantity of herbicides used in oilseed rape
was essentially unchanged.
-- It is inescapable that weeds compete with crops and reduce yields
and provide food and cover for wildlife. On the one hand, farmers employ
weed management to control weeds and improve crop productivity and profitability.
Failing to control weeds after they become competitive with the crop results
in yield reductions and can have important economic consequences. On the
other hand, farmers may elect weed management strategies that conserve
weeds for the benefit of wildlife, but if weeds are allowed to compete
with the crop, productivity is reduced.
-- These aims of the farmer are not mutually exclusive, but the trade-offs
are readily apparent. Other research in the UK has shown that GMHT crops
can be grown under different weed management regimes that allow weed growth
early in the growing season to support wildlife with minimal impact on
-- In addition, some farmers may elect to support biodiversity by managing
field boundaries that provide better habitat for wildlife rather than
attempt to manage the crop fields themselves. In a broad sense, the aim
of agriculture is to maximize crop productivity within the agricultural
landscape while emphasizing the importance of land conservation and other
-- Finally, the total land area is comprised of non-agricultural land
and agricultural land representing a diversity of agricultural crops.
At the present time, the crops under consideration - beet, maize and oilseed
rape - represent a very small proportion of the agricultural area, and
an even smaller proportion of the total land area.
1. Original papers in the Philosophical Transactions
2. Asking the Wrong Questions?
3. Ian Weatherhead Explains the Potential Benefits of FSEs
4. Momentous Day for British Agriculture
5. Farming on Trial
6. British Biotech in Crisis
7. Open Letter to Tony Blair
8. British Farm Scale Trials and Biodiversity
9. Deciding the Future of GM Crops in Europe
10. On British Farm Scale Trials
11. Controlling Weeds is Bad?
12. Mixed Message Could Prove Costly for GM Crops
13. It Is Time to Let Both Farmers and Consumers Benefit
14. GM Crop Trials - Why?
15. Damned If They Do, Damned If They Don't...
16. FSE Results - Scimac Statement
17. Ecology vs. Agronomy
18. Impact of Agricultural Biotechnology on Biodiversity
Original papers on the British Farm Scale Evaluation
in the Philosophical Transactions:
Sciences Series: http://www.pubs.royalsoc.ac.uk/phil_bio/news/fse_toc.html
public debate: http://www.gmnation.org.uk
the Wrong Questions?
draw wrong conclusions from interesting new study'
- Ronald Bailey, Reasononline, Nov. 5, 2003 http://www.reason.com/rb/rb110503.shtml
Last month the British Royal Society's flagship scientific journal, The
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, reported the results
of a three-year Farm Scale Evaluation (FSE) study that compared conventional
crops with genetically enhanced herbicide-resistant crops. Anti-biotech
activists immediately claimed that the FSE results supported their demands
for a total ban on genetically modified agriculture.
"For years the GM corporations have been claiming that their crop
would reduce weed killer use and benefit wildlife," Greenpeace responded
in a statement. "Now we know how wrong they were." Tony Juniper,
director of Friends of the Earth, argued, "These trials have shown
that GM oilseed rape and beet cause more damage to the environment than
even conventional crops. The maize results are at best inconclusive. Going
ahead with the commercialization of any of these GM crops would be totally
But do crops that are genetically enhanced to tolerate herbicides hurt
the environment? Looking at the details of the FSE study reveals the evidence
of harm to be less than compelling. The very limited question that FSE
researchers were asked to investigate was whether or not there was any
"difference between the management of GMHT [genetically modified
herbicide tolerant] varieties and that of comparable conventional varieties
in their effects on wildlife abundance and diversity." To find out,
farmers planted several score fields half with conventional varieties,
and half with GMHT varieties. The researchers then looked at the abundance
of weeds, invertebrates (insects, spiders, snails, etc.) and vertebrates
(chiefly birds) living in the farm fields and along the uncultivated margins
of the fields.
What did they find? They found that fields growing herbicide-tolerant
beets and canola had fewer bees and butterflies. Why? Because bees and
butterflies consume nectar, and the GMHT fields had fewer flowering weeds
for them to feed on. The researchers noted that "the results for
bees and butterflies relate to foraging preferences and might or might
not translate into effects on population densities."
In other words, bees and butterflies prefer to flit off to areas where
flowers bloom and stay away from relatively weed-free fields. Meanwhile,
another group of insects-- springtails-- increased in GMHT fields because
they feed on dead plant matter, e.g., the weeds killed by herbicides.
Except for those groups, the researchers concluded, "The FSEs have
shown that GMHT management has no strong effect on the majority of the
higher taxa of aerial and epigeal arthropods..." Translation: Surface
dwelling and flying invertebrates were largely unaffected by GM crops.
What about weeds? By engineering in herbicide tolerance, farmers can
use safer, less toxic herbicides to control weeds throughout a crop's
growing period. For conventional crops, farmers typically pre-treat a
field with herbicide to kill off weeds before or shortly after they plant.
Since their crops are generally susceptible to herbicides, farmers are
limited in the herbicides they can use once their conventional crop begins
growing. So weeds that escaped the pre-treatment continue to grow and
compete with crop plants for nutrients and sunlight. Since herbicide-tolerant
crops can be treated at any time, this means that farmers can more easily
control weed infestations.
So it is not surprising that the FSEs found that there were fewer weeds
in beet and canola fields, and therefore there were fewer weed seeds available
to feed wildlife such as birds. On the other hand, weed densities were
greater for GMHT maize, most likely because the conventional herbicide
(atrazine) has such a long-lasting effect that it kills far more weeds
during and after treatment. Maize fields, both conventional and GMHT,
had far fewer weeds per square meter than either beets or canola. In fact,
choosing to grow maize rather than beets or canola has a far greater effect
on wildlife than growing genetically enhanced crops.
The Greenpeace claim that GM growing does not reduce the amount of weed
killer used by farmers was shown by the FSE study to be dramatically false.
Farmers used 48 percent less herbicide for GM beets, 43 percent less for
maize, and herbicide applications were not significantly different for
canola, although in the U.S., canola farmers typically use 60 percent
less herbicide than do conventional growers.
The FSEs clearly provided some fascinating new information about the
differences in the conventional and genetically enhanced crops. The investigators
should be applauded for rigorously and fairly answering the questions
given to them. However, their findings do not ineluctably tell policymakers
or the public what to do about genetically modified agriculture, no matter
what the anti-biotech activists may claim. The future direction of farming
depends far more on value judgments and aesthetic concerns than it does
on scientific studies like the FSE. The central question probably is:
What kind of landscape do people prefer?
Consider that no matter what effects either conventional or GM crops
have on wildlife, they pale in comparison to the impact that the introduction
of modern herbicides and pesticides 50 years ago had on farmland biology.
Farmers' fields became dramatically more productive, and comparatively
weed- and pest-free.
Of course, this modern revolution in farming has boosted food production
many fold, and makes food cheaper and more abundant than it has ever been
in history. Few people would advocate doing away with conventional farming
in order to boost wildlife populations, if by doing so we increased the
risk of starvation. Farming, it's worth remembering, is the opposite of
letting nature run wild-- that's why agriculture is so much more productive
than hunting and gathering.
Besides, the FSE researchers themselves point out that an alternative
to banning GM crops would be to manage the landscape to produce the sort
of plants that would support the preferred collection of insects, spiders,
birds, mammals, and so forth. In fact, if protecting wildlife is the right
goal, the higher productivity of genetically enhanced crops means that
less land has to be planted to grow food for people, thus leaving more
land for nature. So there may be less wildlife in the fields, but more
across the whole landscape, after it has been allowed to revert to nature.
But why not ask a deeper question? Why favor the sorts of wildlife that
thrive in relatively open areas like farms in the first place? Chopping
down essentially all of Britain's forests to create farms had a far greater
effect on wildlife than herbicides or genetically enhanced crops do. In
the United Kingdom today, 85 percent of the total arable land surface
is sown in crops. Why not get rid of farms entirely and restore Britain's
once dominant woodland species? After all, farmers in the European Union
have no business at all growing highly subsidized sugar beets, since the
sugar they produce costs several times the world market price for that
commodity. It's the same with maize- farmers in Ohio can grow corn much
more cheaply than the British.
The FSE program offers some fascinating scientific insights, but it cannot
tell us how farmland should be managed. If anti-biotech activists want
to favor certain wildlife and not others, that is their choice. But they
cannot make the case for their preferences by arguing that "science"
has somehow proved their point.
Ian Weatherhead of the Agricultural Biotechnology
Council Explains the Potential Benefits of FSEs
- Ian Weatherhead, Chemistry and Industry, Nov. 3, 2003
The UK farm-scale evaluations (FSEs) were established in 1999 in response
to questions raised about the effects on farmland wildlife and biodiversity
of the weed management practices associated with growing particular types
of genetically modified herbicide tolerant (GMHT) crops.
The objective was to examine possible differences in the abundance and
diversity of weeds and insects in GM crops compared to equivalent non-GM
crops. The programme was overseen by a scientific steering committee.
Data were required from 60/75 sites/crop between 2000 and 2002, with each
field planted with a GM crop in one half, and an equivalent non-GM crop
in the other. Four GMHT crops were used - spring-sown oilseed rape, forage
maize, beet (both sugar and fodder beet) and autumn-sown oilseed rape.
Results from the autumn-sown oilseed rape studies are due to be published
A pioneering project, it was one of the largest programmes of ecological
research of its kind. No other agricultural technology has ever undergone
such a comprehensive programme of testing and evaluation. The results
of this study, published in October, took the form of eight peer-reviewed
papers published by the Proceedings of the Royal Society. http://www.pubs.royalsoc.ac.uk/fseresults
From a wealth of data one finding has attracted greatest coverage, namely
that one of the GM crops, forage maize, offered benefits to the environment
in terms of greater numbers of weeds and fauna, while the other two GM
varieties, sugar beet and spring oilseed rape, led to lower numbers of
weeds and associated fauna compared to the GM crop.
The research also made a number of clear points:
* There was a greater effect between the three conventional crops in
terms of biodiversity than between the conventional and GM varieties.
* There was no effect resulting from the GM process itself - GM crops
had no direct effect on wildlife.
* The results were a direct reflection of the levels of weed control.
Where weed control was more efficient in the GM crop there was less biodiversity
The researchers also said: 'Research is now showing how biodiversity
can be enhanced in arable landscapes by the manipulation of both GMHT
and conventional farming systems and their adjacent field margins. If
wildlife is to be conserved and restored in the British countryside, this
balance between agricultural production and opportunities for biodiversity
needs to be shifted back to a significant degree. GMHT cropping is but
one factor in determining whether, and how far, this shift in balance
might be achieved.'1
These trials were about the impact of weed control, pure and simple.
Fewer weeds result in less biodiversity; more weeds result in greater
biodiversity. Farmland wildlife must be seen in balance with crop production
and this technology should be considered in the context of farmland management
and what the UK wants its farms to deliver.
A comparison between herbicides used in multiple sprays on conventional
crops and single sprays of glyphosate of glufosinate on GM crops inevitably
leads to differences in weed control, but does not yield as great a variation
in biodiversity as that between the different conventional crops. The
results also showed that there was no impact from the GM process or plants
on biodiversity. If biodiversity differences were all down to weed control,
there would be similar impacts from hoeing, ploughing and herbicide treatments.
Weed control and its impact are therefore independent of GM and just as
relevant in the case of organic or conventional crops as it is in the
case of GMHT.
If reduced biodiversity in GM sugar beet and oilseed rape was the consequence
of more efficient weed control, it is possible to tailor the level and
timing of weed control to allow greater environmental benefit, as demonstrated
by research from the Broom's Barn Research Station.2 The summary paper
on the FSE results1 makes this point clearly: 'Small plot experiments
on GMHT beet crops have shown considerable increases of weeds and invertebrates
with delayed glyphosate spraying. This potential benefit for breeding
birds was not realised by farmers within the FSE who applied the herbicides
This technology can offer growers an additional option for weed control,
and with further refinement of associated weed management practice can
deliver greater environmental benefits. These results will now be considered
by the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, which will provide
independent advice to government ministers.
References The implications of spring-sown genetically modified herbicide-tolerant
crops for farmland biodiversity: a commentary on the farm-scale evaluations
of spring-sown crops, L Firbank et al A novel approach to the use of genetically
modified herbicide-tolerant crops for environmental benefit, 2002. A Dewar
et al, Proceedings of the Royal Society London. Biological Sciences B270
Momentous Day for British Agriculture
- Cropgen.org (UK), Oct. 16, 2003
The Farm Scale Evaluations show that, contrary to what campaigners have
been asserting for years, GM technology, if managed properly, can benefit
the environment as well as farmers and consumers. Today is a momentous
one for UK agriculture. The implications of the FSEs are clear:
* GM Maize is good for farmers, better for biodiversity and is ready
for commercial cultivation.
* GM sugar beet has been shown to be highly effective at controlling
weeds and, as the results from a Broom's Barn study published earlier
this year demonstrated, with more effective management it could have environmental
* GM spring oilseed rape is also effective at controlling weeds, giving
it significant advantages over its conventional and organic equivalents.
CropGen looks forward to the day when GM technology offers important nutritional
advantages as well as crop management benefits with little or no environmental
It is worth noting that GM holds the promise of higher, better quality
yields and more efficient land usage but the FSEs did not consider these
factors. What the FSEs do show is that GM crops should be assessed on
a case by case basis.
Britain is at an agricultural crossroads and the Government must now
choose which path to follow. Millions of farmers across five continents
are taking advantage of GM technology, operating more efficiently due
to the better weed control that GM offers.
Are British farmers to be told that they cannot have access to these
same benefits? If so, how are they to compete in the global agricultural
economy? What role do we want farmers to play in our country? Are they
to be forced to become park keepers first and foremost? If so, will consumers
be prepared to pay for their stewardship of the countryside at the checkout?
The truth is, it is a false choice. The results of the FSEs show that
GM crops can play a role in British agriculture. They show that one critically
important crop is ready for commercial cultivation and that, with the
right management techniques in place, others may follow.
All farmers - GM, organic and conventional - are in a perpetual battle
against weeds. Yet weeds provide food and cover for insects, and insects
provide food for birds. Achieving a balance between crop protection and
bird preservation is difficult in conventional and organic farming but
much easier with GM where the farmer has a good deal more flexibility.
--- CropGen is an information initiative designed to make the case for
crop biotechnology. It is funded by industry but operates independently
of it. For more information please visit our website at www.cropgen.org
- Alex Avery, Tech Central Station, Oct. 23, 2003
Full text at http://www.techcentralstation.com/102303D.html
British farmers must be wondering if they've been transported to Alice's
Wonderland. Suddenly, normal farm activities like combating weeds in the
fields are akin to crimes against nature.
Last week, the UK government released the results of its 3-year farm-scale
evaluations (FSEs) supposedly examining the environmental impacts of genetically
modified, or "GM" crops. According to the headlines in scores
of UK newspapers, the results indicate that two of the three GM crops
were "damaging to wildlife."
The Guardian headline read, "Two GM crops face ban for damaging
wildlife." Commentator John Vidal says the trials provide "a
legal basis for banning the two crops under European Union rules, which
say that either health or environmental detriment must be proved."
This is a sham. They aren't talking wildlife; they're literally talking
about weeds. The FSE measured the number and density of weeds and associated
insects in the crop fields. The researchers call it "farmland biodiversity"
and assume that fewer weeds and dependent bugs in farm fields means fewer
birds and other critters off the farm. The FSE researchers refer to this
assumption as "the negative impacts of cleanliness."
British Biotech in Crisis
AgBiotech Reporter, http://www.bioreporter.com,
Little could have underscored the crisis in British biotechnology more
than the public relations debacle that ensued from the results of Britain's
program of farm-scale field trials of GM crops. According to the Royal
Society, which released the results of years of exhaustive investigation,
the trials revealed 'significant differences in the effect on biodiversity
when managing genetically modified herbicide-tolerant (GMHT) crops as
compared to conventional varieties.'
About 60 fields each were planted to beet, maize and spring oilseed rape.
Each field was split, one half being planted to a conventional variety
managed according to the farmer's normal practice, the other half being
sown with a GMHT variety, with weeds controlled by glufosinate-ammonium
in maize and spring oilseed rape, and glyphosate in beet. Comparisons
in biodiversity were made by looking at the levels of weeds and invertebrates,
such as beetles, butterflies and bees, in both the fields and the field
margins immediately surrounding them.
In GMHT beet and oilseed rape crops more effective weed control led to
a decline of the number of weed seeds left in the soil at the end of each
growing season. Although this has been going on in cropped fields in Britain
for many decades, researchers said it could be accelerated by the management
associated with these particular crops. In contrast, GMHT maize showed
the opposite effect. Typically, conventional maize has lower weed burdens
because of the widespread use of persistent herbicides; the herbicide
regimes used on the GMHT maize were not as effective at controlling the
In beet and oilseed rape, the densities of weeds shortly after planting
were higher in the GMHT treatment. This effect was reversed after the
first application of broad-spectrum herbicide in the GMHT treatments.
By the end of the season, the weight of weeds collected from a fixed area
and number of weed seeds falling to the soil among these GMHT crops were
between one-third and one-sixth those of conventional treatments.
Twelve of the most common weed species in the UK were examined. The biomass
of six species in beet, eight in maize and five in oilseed rape were significantly
affected. Generally, weed biomass was lower in GMHT beet and oilseed rape
and higher in GMHT maize. For many species in beet and oilseed rape (19
out of 24 cases), weed seed densities were lower after GMHT cropping.
According to the researchers, these differences, if compounded over time,
could result in large decreases in population densities of what they called
arable weeds. Where the weeds were less abundant, there were fewer insect
herbivores, pollinators and insects which prey on the herbivores.
Comparison of the amounts of herbicide applied with the density of weeds
showed that farmers applied more herbicide when the density increased
in beet and maize. Generally GMHT crops were found to receive less herbicide,
later in the season, than the conventional crops.
"The results of these farm scale evaluations reveal significant
differences in the effect on biodiversity when managing genetically herbicide-tolerant
(GMHT) crops as compared to conventional varieties," said Les Firbank,
coordinator of the project that submitted the papers on the trials. "The
study emphasizes the importance of the weeds growing among crop plants
in sustaining natural communities within, and adjacent to, farmer's fields".
This media fiasco could have been forecast from the very beginning of
the field trials; every farmer knows that weed control reduces biodiversity,
i.e., reduces weeds and the bugs that live on them. That's what weed control,
even with a hoe, is supposed to do. So at vast public expense, British
scientists merely succeeded in demonstrating what has been known since
the dawn of agriculture. However, biodiversity is the darling of activists
and the media, so even pathological claims gain credence. For instance,
more weeds and bugs were found among the herbicide tolerant maize than
among the conventional surely an embarrassment for the technology involved,
but this weed control failure was hailed in the press as 'beneficial.'
Apparently, some scientists (and most of the media) involved in UK agricultural
issues have completely lost sight of the notion that the purpose of farming
is to produce food. Even the British scientists conducting the study purposely
ignored the food production aspect of farming. The Royal Society wrote
that "these evaluations were not intended to compare the performances
of the crops but rather the effects on biodiversity of the management
of the crops." Having decided agronomic value is irrelevant, it
would have been far more honest of them to say that the field trials were
actually about the management of weeds and bugs.
Open Letter to Tony Blair
- Denis Murphy, Univ Glamorgan (UK) <email@example.com>
Today, Prime Minister Tony Blair received a letter (copy attached) about
the GM science review from the 100 leading UK bioscientists.
As stated in Todays 'Times' "More than 100 leading scientists have
made a once-in-a-generation appeal to Tony Blair to save British science
from a tide of neglect and abuse that is driving the brightest young brains
The letter is also reported in the Western Mail: http://icwales.icnetwork.co.uk/0100news/0600uk/page.cfm?objectid=13575160&method=full&siteid=50082
Open Letter About GM from UK Scientists to
- From Professor Derek Burke and others, 13 Pretoria Road, Cambridge
CB4 1HD; 30th October 2003
Dear Prime Minister
The results of the Farm Scale Evaluations of three GM crops announced
on 16th October were reported across the media as 'the end of GM in the
UK'. In fact the FSEs did not assess the effects of genetically modifying
the crops, but rather the impact of different types of weed control. They
had little to do with genetic modification, its processes or potential.
However the governments reaction to the latest misleading reports
on GM was to remain silent. Since 1999, the government has sponsored several
protracted deliberations on GM but has consistently neglected opportunities
to address any of the unsubstantiated assertions about the process of
genetic modification and possible risks.
We feel you should be aware of the consequences of this ongoing failure
to respond and to give a lead:
1. Demoralisation Some scientists are leaving the UK, but many more are
thoroughly demoralised by hostility to the work they do, which is continually
misrepresented and even sabotaged. This is despite the new scientific
opportunities afforded by developments like genomics. Those who have contributed
many hours to public communication and government-sponsored deliberations
feel undermined by the governments failure to contradict false claims
about 'Frankenfoods', health risks and 'superweeds'.
2. Declining contribution to scientific development Work on the basic
science of genetic engineering and its applications to plants is being
scaled down. This will inhibit our ability to contribute to scientific
knowledge internationally, and to meet challenges like yield improvement,
drought tolerance and reduced reliance on pesticides.
The governments many initiatives in this prolonged deliberation
on GM crops have been structured in a way that makes it impossible to
clarify the nature of the scientific work or its opportunities. Genetic
engineering of plants has been reduced to a matter of consumer preference;
the public has been misinformed; and the efforts of scientists to communicate
about genetic engineering have been misused.
For those of us who have spent our lives doing research, publishing
research and teaching research in the UK, it is distressing to experience
such a backward slide; for others of us, and our students just starting
out, it is deeply discouraging. More importantly, for society as a whole,
if the same framework is applied in future decision-making, we risk seeing
other technologies lose out to prejudice and procrastination.
Yours sincerely Professor Derek C. Burke, Professor and Vice-Chancellor
of the University of East Anglia (1987-1995) Chairman ACNFP (1987-1997)
This letter has been signed by the 114 individuals above in a personal
capacity and not on behalf of their institutions or funding bodies.
British Farm Scale Trials and Biodiversity
- Chris Preston, Senior Lecturer, Weed Management, University of Adelaide,
Having stood in wheat fields in the UK, US and Australia and spoken to
growers and industry in all three places, I can understand in part why
the cultural divide between the UK and North America (and Australia) over
farmland biodiversity occurs (UK Ecologist, Agbioview 28th October). I
am not a "biotechnologist", my work is more ecological than
biotechnological, but I have been one of the people saying "herbicides
are designed to kill weeds".
There are a number of points we need to keep in mind in this discussion
and our UK ecologist has timely reminded us of some of these. In North
America the great majority of native biodiversity is not on farms (and
this is even more stark in Australia). In these counties, the concern
is largely about native biodiversity. In the UK there is increasing interest
in farms as sources of biodiversity and, as was pointed out by Alex Avery,
this is of course man-made biodiversity. Given that cropping at some scale
has been occurring in the UK for many centuries, man-made biodiversity
is important in how people view their world.
I would see a range of ways of achieving the protection of farmland biodiversity.
One option is of course to require farmers to grow weeds in their crops.
If indeed this is the intention, it should be stated and should be pursued
in a rational way. Another alternative, and one already in operation,
is the use of set-aside land and other initiatives to reduce the area
of land under cropping.
Presumably, if GM crops allowed growers to make more money off less land
through higher yields or better weed control, then more land could be
set aside. A third way to change biodiversity is to change the crop mix.
What the FSE has shown more clearly than anything else is that different
crop species have different amounts of biodiversity. On a great many of
the measures made, GM oilseed rape was as good or better than non-GM beets
and non-GM maize. It was worse than non-GM oilseed rape on only some of
the measures: most importantly weed biomass, weed seed rain and numbers
of butterflies. Therefore, one simple way to increase farmland biodiversity
is to increase the area sown to oilseed rape (GM or otherwise).
It seems to me, sitting outside the UK, that a double standard is being
advocated in sections of the UK Press and elsewhere. GM crops should not
be grown because the herbicides used with them will reduce the number
of weeds in crops. Yet new effective herbicides are introduced all the
time with no clamor that they should be banned because they reduce farmland
biodiversity. Also nobody is advocating a ban of specific crop species
that also reduce the number of weeds because there are highly effective
herbicides that can already be used in them.
I suspect two things are making it difficult for those in North America
(and elsewhere) to understand the clamor in the UK with regard to the
results of the FSE. The first is the notion that you want to have weeds
growing in the crop when you could quite easily create situations where
they grow outside the crop and secondly the appearance of a double standard
with regard to GM crops versus equally effective herbicides used in other
Deciding the Future of GM Crops in Europe
- R. P. Freckleton, W. J. Sutherland A. R. Watkinson, Science, Nov.
7, 2003; Vol. 302, No. 5647, pp. 994-996.
Three weeks ago saw the publication in the United Kingdom (UK) of the
widely anticipated Farm Scale Evaluation (FSE) of the effects of genetically
modified herbicide-tolerant (GMHT) crops on farmland biodiversity. A moratorium
on the licensing of these crops has been in force pending a review of
their likely impacts on health, the economy, and the environment . This
delay has infuriated commercial interests in the United States (US), where
GM crops are widely grown, and has led to President Bush launching a trade
suit against the European Union over its GM policy.
The FSE is the last of a parallel series of reports compiled to enable
the UK Government to decide whether or not to lift the moratorium on growing
GM crops. The others are (i) an economic evaluation, which concluded that
the economic viability of GM crops was highly dependent on consumer acceptance.
(ii) A science review which concluded that the risks to human health from
current GM crops are minimal, that current GM crops are unlikely to pose
a threat to UK ecosystems, but that the more effective weed management
associated with GMHT crops may reduce farmland biodiversity. (iii) A public
debate involving 675 meetings with 20,000 people, the receipt of 1200
letters and e-mails, 36,557 feedback forms, and interviews with a stratified
random sample of 78 individuals. The public debate met with an overall
negative response, although markedly less negative for the randomly selected
individuals, suggesting bias in the general feedback, with the views of
strong anti-GM campaigners contributing disproportionately to the debate.
Farm Scale Evaluation The FSE was designed to test the hypothesis that
there is no difference in biodiversity between GM crops and conventional
crops. The study design was carried out over 3 years in 60 fields across
England and Scotland. Fields were divided into two, one-half were sown
with a conventional crop, and the other with a GM crop. The crops grown
were sugar beet (including fodder beet), maize, and winter and spring
oilseed rape (canola) [HN8], and the biodiversity recorded included the
abundance of weeds and invertebrates. The data were rigorously analyzed,
peer-reviewed, and published in a series of eight papers in the Philosophical
Transactions of the Royal Society of London. The results on autumn-sown
canola are expected to be published next spring.
The primary effects of the use of GMHT crops were, unsurprisingly, on
the numbers and biomass of weeds (see the table). In two of the GMHT crops
(sugar beet and spring canola), there were reductions of 60 to 80% in
weed biomass at the end of the growing season, reflecting increased weed
control in these crops. In contrast, there was an increase of 82% in weed
biomass in GMHT maize compared with the conventional maize crop. The reason
for this is that pre-emergence control of weeds in conventional maize
using the herbicide atrazine is extremely efficient, and the GMHT system
is unable to improve on this.
Summary of the Main Results
* Differences in biodiversity between crops exceed differences between
GMHT and conventional crops.
* Higher early season weed numbers and biomass in all three GMHT crops.
* Higher weed mortality in GMHT sugar beet and canola resulting in lower
late-season biomass and seed rain of weeds in those crops, but lower weed
mortality in GM maize.
* More detritivores (collembola) in all three GMHT crops as a result of
higher weed detritus.
* Lower numbers of bees, butterflies, and Heteroptera in GMHT sugar beet
and canola as a result of reduced weed populations; generally higher numbers
of invertebrates in GM maize.
* Lower herbicide inputs in GMHT crops.
There were also a number of effects on the growth and characteristics
of weeds during crop development. The GMHT crops were not sprayed with
a pre-emergence herbicide, so that initially weed densities were much
higher than in the conventional beet and canola. This effect is frequently
cited as a benefit of the GM system. However, after herbicide application,
these weeds are killed, typically before they are able to set seed. Consequently,
by the end of the growing season there are fewer weeds in the GM oilseed
rape and beet, and those remaining tend to produce fewer seeds per plant
than those surviving in the conventional crop. Thus, short-term increases
in weed biomass are likely to be outweighed by longer term declines in
weed numbers .
The secondary effects of the GM system tend to mirror the effects on
weeds. Thus, densities of carabid beetles feeding on weed seeds tended
to be higher in conventional beet and canola, as well as in GM maize,
because of the greater weed seed production. On the other hand, detritivore
(collembolan) densities were higher in the GM beet and canola, as well
as in conventional maize. This effect resulted from the increased biomass
of weeds during the initial stages of growth, which were then killed by
late spraying, providing dead plant material on which detritivores were
able to feed. Other trophic groups (pollinators, herbivores, and their
natural enemies) showed similar shifts in abundance relative to effects
on the abundance of their resources.
There are a number of important differences in the management of GM crops
versus conventional crops, which could have important environmental effects.
Notably, herbicide use is typically far lower in the GM system than in
the conventional one. In the GM system, there is usually a maximum of
only two herbicide applications per growing season. In conventional crops,
particularly sugar beet, this number can be trebled when weed infestations
are large. Consequently, the amount of active herbicide ingredient used
in the GM system may be much lower than in the conventional one.
In extreme cases, some farmers using the GM system actually applied no
herbicides, presumably because of an already highly depleted weed flora.
This could reflect an agronomic advantage of the GM system: Because weed
control is extremely effective using broad-spectrum herbicides in GM crops,
farmers have the flexibility to act responsively to weed problems, whereas
with conventional crops (particularly sugar beet) control is often difficult
and farmers have to act pre-emptively. A huge caveat, of course, is that
changes in practice of this sort will only be possible if yields or profits
are maintained, but it is impossible to judge this from the FSE results.
The FSE results show large negative impacts of growing GMHT crops on
weeds in sugar beet, smaller but consistent negative effects on weeds
in oilseed rape, and positive effects on weeds in maize. The change in
timings of herbicide applications leads to shifts in invertebrate resource
abundance during the growing season, and the invertebrates respond to
this change. The management of GMHT crops is dramatically different from
that of conventional crops and could lead to major reductions in herbicide
applications if yields from GMHT crops can be maintained.
Limitations The FSE is one of the most extensive and impressive ecological
studies ever conducted. However, it is not without limitations. One of
the most serious limitations is that for logistical reasons crop yields
were not measured. Without yield measurements it is not possible to judge
the effectiveness of GM technology and whether GM crops can deliver increased
yields. This is particularly significant given that farmers vary enormously
in the number and timing of herbicide applications to their GM crops,
which could have a major impact on weed numbers and yield and consequently
on invertebrate biodiversity.
The most serious limitation of the FSE from the standpoint of public
policy is that the study has no predictive component. Forecasts of the
likely impacts on biodiversity 10, 20, or even 50 years into the future
and at a landscape scale are needed if policy decisions are to be made.
However, the FSE was not designed with the goal of estimating parameters
for the development of predictive models, but was tied to a rather narrow
hypothesis test and constrained to a field scale. Therefore, the current
results are inadequate to make long-term policy evaluations; a modeling
framework would seem to be necessary to achieve this.
Although the FSE is extremely comprehensive, the results are not adequate
to evaluate effectively the likely long-term impacts of growing GMHT crops,
and further evaluations of the results will be necessary.
The Future The current debate about growing GM crops in the UK contrasts
with the situation in the US where GM crops are widely grown. Two differences
help to explain these contrasting attitudes. First, the major epidemics
of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) and foot-and-mouth disease in
the UK led to a breakdown in public confidence in politicians and scientists
over food safety. Second, the UK relies on farmland for recreation. Whereas
in the US, National Parks such as Yellowstone and Yosemite are largely
unmanaged, equivalent beauty spots in the UK are predominantly agricultural
landscapes. The environmental impacts of farming are also of increasing
concern. Farming practices over the past 30 years have had an enormous
impact on the biodiversity of farmland. There is consequently an attitude
of extreme caution to technological changes in farming practice.
Paradoxically, although the results of the FSE may appear detrimental
to those supporting GM crops, they might actually be beneficial. Applications
to grow GM crops can only be rejected on health or environmental grounds.
Using the FSE results as a justification to adopt a cautious approach,
for example, by not licensing sugar beet or oilseed rape but permitting
the planting of maize, might be the politically expedient way to introduce
GM crops to a skeptical public while clearly showing responsible concern.
There is, however, the complex issue of cross-pollination between GMHT
maize and conventional maize that still has to be resolved.
The FSE has not produced evidence for any new environmental damage as
a result of GM technology. The reductions in biodiversity result solely
from increased control of weeds, and the FSE appears to show that introducing
GMHT crops is equivalent to the development of a new, very efficient herbicide.
Such changes in technology occur routinely and without public debate.
Although the impacts of GMHT crops on biodiversity may be negative, future
technological developments could also yield effects of this sort, and
there is no reason to make a special case for GM crops. On the other hand,
environmentalists might argue that if biodiversity is to be conserved
in farmland habitats, the negative effects of farming technology need
to be halted, and GM crops may be the place to start. Thus, the FSE will,
inevitably, provide ammunition for both sides of the debate.
--- References in original paper. Enhanced online content at http://www.sciencemag.org/
On British Farm Scale Trials
- Wayne Parrott <firstname.lastname@example.org>
By now the news reports are starting to circulate that GM crops are environmentally
damaging. These news reports are based on generous extrapolations from
the results of the study posted on-line at http://www.pubs.royalsoc.ac.uk/phil_bio/news/fse_toc.html
The argument basically goes that weed control is too good with GM crops.
Therefore, no weeds = no insects and no weed seed. In turn, no insects
and no weed seed = no bird food. No bird food = no birds.
The line of reasoning is intimated in the introduction of the study and
in one of the reports ["it is feared that, since the herbicides are
more efficient at weed control (Brants & Harms 1998), this may lead
to cleaner fields, which may threaten wildlife (English Nature 2000; Royal
Society for the Protection of Birds 2003]. "
Yet, the environmental impact assessment of these studies was based on
counting weeds and insects in GM and and non-GM fields. They never actually
counted birds for this study. All conclusions on the effect on birdlife
are the result of extrapolations way beyond the data base, and of inappropriate
use of correlation to prove cause and effect.
Ultimately, the results reported in these studies are a result of the
crop management system, rather than of the GM crops themselves. Case in
point, note that an organic farmer who thoroughly hoes his/her field would
be equally guilty of destroying potential bird food.
The UK studies fail to account that agronomic practices change with the
advent of GM crops. One clear trend in the studies is that with less weeds
in GM fields, the detritus-eating insects had lower abundance. To the
extent that low numbers of detritus-eating insects are a limitation, switching
to no-till practices-- as is happening in the US, would provide better
habitat not just for detritus-eating insects, but for all types of soil-dwelling
Perhaps the biggest flaw is than in no case did they consider the environmental
impact of the herbicide residues used in the conventional systems, for
example, by using Cornell's Environmental Impact Quotient formula.
I should also point out that farms are not the natural habitat for wildlife--
the term "farmland wildlife" used in the introduction is a contradiction
of terms. By focusing on better weed control and maximum yields per plot
of land, they could then have extra land to set aside, so that it could
remain wild and be habitat for wildlife in its natural state.
Controlling Weeds is Bad?
- Bob MacGregor <email@example.com>
I seem to recall that there are conventionally-bred, herbicide tolerant
canola varieties. I wonder if these have been approved for use in the
UK? If, as the Royal Society report(s) points out, the environmental/biodiversity
impact is not related to the breeding technique (ie GE or not), but to
the weed management effectiveness on the particular crop, then surely
any objections to HT canola would apply whether it was GM or not.
Can we then expect Greenpeace, English Nature and Prince Charles to call
for a ban on any crops that make weed control easier because they might
reduce the diversity of pests and the birds that eat them?
I thought the point of modern agriculture was to be intensively productive
on some land so that nature could thrive on the rest; maybe I missed something.....
Agribiotechnology: Mixed Message Could Prove
Costly for GM Crops
- Erik Stokstad and Gretchen Vogel, Science, V.302, No. 5645, pp.
542-543. Oct. 24, 2003.
Backers of genetically modified (GM) crops were rooting for a knockout.
Industry was anxiously awaiting the results of a 3-year experiment on
the effects of three modified plants--beets, maize, and oilseed rape--on
hundreds of plant and insect species across Great Britain. Supporters
hoped that the engineered crops would be a boon to farmers without inflicting
more punishment on the environment than do conventional crops. But when
the results of the largest-ever GM field trials were unveiled last week,
they hardly served to bolster prospects for the technology: Cultivation
of beets and oilseed rape clearly had deleterious effects on wildlife
and native plants. Only GM maize proved more environmentally friendly
than its non-GM counterpart.
The findings could turn out to be a knockout blow, but not the sort that
GM enthusiasts were hoping for. U.K. government officials, once discretely
bullish on agbiotech, studiously avoided lining up on the wrong side of
public opinion, which squarely opposes the commercial planting of GM crops.
"I cannot see any European government ignoring these results and
their effect on wildlife," Elliot Morley, the environment minister,
told The Guardian newspaper last week. At best, the GM row will be much
harder to hoe in Europe. "This is going to create more controversy
rather than less," says David Andow, an entomologist at the University
of Minnesota, Twin Cities.
Whatever the political ramifications, scientists are praising the field
trials as a premier example of environmental impact assessment. "This
is a landmark effort," says ecologist Allison Snow of Ohio State
University, Columbus. It "is the most comprehensive study of its
kind ever," says Guy Poppy, an ecologist at the University of Southampton,
U.K. "We've never had such a wonderful data set."
To help decide whether to recommend that the European Union approve these
GM crops for commercial planting, the U.K. government commissioned a series
of studies. Two were released earlier this year; a scientific review found
little risk to human health (Science, 25 July, p. 447), and an economic
analysis indicated that GM crops could ultimately benefit consumers and
farmers. A third study, in the works since 1999, investigated how wildlife
might be affected by crops modified to resist herbicides.
Nineteen researchers from six agricultural research stations across England,
Scotland, and Wales designed a trial comparing three GM crops--the ones
closest to approval for commercial planting in the U.K.--with conventional
counterparts at more than 200 field sites across Britain. These varieties
were modified to resist "broad spectrum" herbicides; that makes
farming easier, because herbicides can be sprayed directly on the crops
and kill only weeds. Normally, farmers must douse the soil with herbicides
before weeds sprout, then spray again with different herbicides that target
But killing weeds inflicts collateral damage on the environment. Wildlife
depends on weeds: Some native insects feed on them, butterflies sip their
nectar, and birds eat the seeds. Populations of the skylark, corn bunting,
and other common birds of the British countryside have declined over the
past 30 years. Their woes are blamed in part on ever more intensive agricultural
practices that suppress weeds on croplands.
The $8 million "farm-scale evaluations" pitted the three GM
crops against conventional counterparts on a range of acreages and growing
conditions. On half of each field, farmers grew their crops as usual.
On the other half, they planted a GM variety and followed a herbicide
regimen recommended by the seed company. The much-anticipated findings
were described in eight papers published on 16 October in Philosophical
Transactions of the Royal Society.
The bottom line is that the GM varieties of beet and oilseed rape are
a farmer's boon--but a bane to wildlife. They proved highly successful
in allowing farmers to suppress weeds: Plots with GM varieties had one-third
or less the weed biomass that plots of regular crops sustained. The GM
beet fields had 60% fewer seeds falling from the weeds, the oilseed rape
80% fewer. It's not certain whether that ultimately would mean fewer seeds
stored in the soil--the source of the following year's weeds--but the
researchers suspect so. There were also fewer bees and other insects that
feed upon weeds or their seeds. The margins of GM oilseed rape plots,
for example, had 24% fewer butterflies. The genes spliced into the plants
for herbicide resistance did not have a direct effect; the variations
depended on the herbicides and when the farmers applied them.
Maize was more of a success story for wildlife. The portion of fields
planted with GM maize had 82% more weeds than conventional corn. That's
because conventional corn fields were sprayed with atrazine, a broadly
effective and potent herbicide that is applied before the corn and weeds
sprout. The herbicide-tolerant maize allowed farmers to spray both growing
corn and weeds with a different, albeit weaker (and more benign), herbicide,
leading to more weeds. Insects in the GM fields did better too, presumably
because of the larger weed population.
Although limited to three crops, the trials have raised broader questions
about land use in Britain. Simply what is grown makes a huge difference
to wildlife. Regardless of whether the crops are GM or non-GM, biodiversity
in fields growing oilseed rape is significantly higher than that in maize
and sugar beet fields. "You could argue that if we want biodiversity,
we shouldn't be growing beets and maize at all," says Jeremy Sweet
of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany in Cambridge, U.K. "Do
we want farmland to be primarily for crop production or primarily for
biodiversity? At the moment we're fudging that question." Overall
biodiversity might benefit from policies that allow more intensive farming
on some land but leave other areas for wildlife, he says.
GM foes are staying focused. The "alleged benefits of GM do not
exist," Greenpeace executive director Stephen Tindale said in a statement.
He called on Tony Blair "to close the door on GM crops for good."
Such drastic action may be premature. "The fact that herbicide-resistant
oilseed rape or sugar beets have a negative environmental effect doesn't
mean all GM crops will have a negative effect," says Poppy. Sorting
out the subtleties is now up to the U.K. Advisory Committee on Releases
to the Environment, which will consider the trial results in recommendations
about crop approval that it is expected to deliver to the government by
the end of the year.
It Is Time to Let Both Farmers and Consumers
Benefit from the Flexibility of GM Technology
- Paul Rylott, The Independent - London, Oct. 17, 2003
The results of the Farm Scale Evaluations (FSE) confirm what industry
has long argued: the flexibility of GM crops allows them to be grown in
a way that benefits the environment.
Critics claimed that GM crops would "wipe out" wildlife. These
studies disprove that. On the contrary - this evidence reiterates that
GM crops are more flexible and can enhance biodiversity. These FSEs were
not GM on trial. As the Scientific Steering Committee said: "The
researchers stress that the differences ... were not a result of the way
in which the crops were genetically modified. They arose because these
GM crops gave farmers taking part in the trial new options for weed control."
It was not GM versus conventional farming which was significant, but
different approaches to crop type, herbicide use and management practices.
This research highlighted that the impact on biodiversity is all to do
with how farmers control weeds; when you want to grow high quality, safe,
affordable food, you have to control weeds that otherwise degrade quality
safety and affordability.
None of the studies published this year supports the banning of GM crops.
The economic review by the Strategy Unit argued that while short-term
economic benefits may be limited (in excess of £50m per year to
farmers), future developments could offer much more to consumers and farmers.
The science review concluded that "the risks to human health are
very low for GM crops ... on the market". The report found no evidence
to support claims that crops would become superweeds, saying that "they
are very unlikely to invade our countryside or become problematic plants".
Even "GM Nation?" - the public debate, allegedly conclusive
proof that British people did not want GM - reported that the more balanced
focus groups could see advantages of GM providing cheaper food, helping
UK farmers compete abroad and assisting developing countries. Michael
Meacher, the former environment minister, has claimed that the use of
atrazine in the maize tests invalidates the results. This is wrong. Atrazine,
was one of ten herbicides used on conventional maize in the FSEs.
It is a shame that, despite being responsible for setting up the FSE
trials and having very strong views on the subject, Mr Meacher failed
to visit any of the 280 FSE trial sites in the four-year period. He might
have seen the environmental and biodiversity benefits that flexible weed
management using GM crops allowed.
These studies are a tribute to the farmers, the industry and the scientists.
We look forward to submitting our response to the Advisory Committee on
Releases to the Environment. It is now time for the responsible introduction
of GM crops to the UK. This would allow farmers and consumers to benefit
from the choice and flexibility that GM offers. -- Paul Rylott is chairman
of the Agriculture Biotechnology Council.
GM Crop Trials: Why?
- Tony Gilland, Sp!ked Online, Oct.17, 2003 http://www.spiked-online.com/
Finally the results of the UK government-sponsored 'GM-Crop Farm-Scale
Evaluation' trials have been published. But are we any the wiser?
On 16 October, some 100 journalists and 10 camera crews turned up at
the Science Media Centre in London to find out what the scientists had
discovered. Hot on their heels were another 200-odd NGO representatives,
farmers and interested parties who came to hear a similar briefing from
the scientists in the afternoon at the Royal Institution.
Four years, £5.9million and (apparently) 1.5million dead invertebrates
on from the start of the farm-scale trials, the scientists are clearly
excited about the unique opportunity that they have had to study farmland
ecology at such a detailed and extensive level and, quite reasonably,
are proud of their work. But while the scientific experiment has yielded
some interesting results, it has not helped one bit in answering the vexed
question of whether the UK should get on and experiment with the commercial
growth of genetically modified GM crops.
From the start, the farm-scale trials were an attempt by the UK government
to evade making a decision about GM, in the face of controversy that has
surrounded this technology since 1997. These large trials were a conciliatory
gesture towards GM's opponents, designed to show that it took seriously
the myriad of environmental concerns raised about the impact of GM upon
farmland biodiversity. The trials have now shown, though surely to nobody's
surprise, that GM will have an impact - but whether that impact should
be seen as good, bad or indifferent primarily depends upon the attitude
of the beholder towards GM.
Formally speaking, the purpose of the trials was to evaluate the indirect
environmental impacts of growing genetically modified maize, beet and
spring-sown oil seed rape. These crops have all been modified to make
them resistant to certain broad-spectrum herbicides. The purpose of this
is to make life easier and cheaper for farmers, by assisting them to control
the weeds in their fields without fear of damaging the crops themselves.
In particular it allows the farmer to let weeds grow in the field early
on during the growing season, knowing that he has an effective herbicide
that he can apply later in the year without harming his crops.
All these crops received regulatory approval - both with regard to human
health and environmental effects - by 1998. But during the heated GM debates
of the late 1990s, English Nature, a statutory conservation body, pointed
out that nobody had taken into account the potential impact, not of the
crops themselves, but of the farmers' weed management practices associated
with the new crops.
Would the farmers actually delay the application of herbicides, thus
improving the lot of the species that feed on the weeds, with positive
knock-on effects up the food chain and for biodiversity? And even if they
did, would the positive environmental impacts be outweighed by the negative
impacts on biodiversity of more effective weed control later on in the
growing cycle? These were the sorts of questions the farm-scale trials
were designed to address.
At a summary level, the answers the Scientific Steering Committee for
the trials has come up with seem relatively straightforward. 'Growing
conventional beet and spring rape was better for many groups of wildlife
than growing GM herbicide-tolerant (GMHT) beet and spring rape. Some insect
groups, such as bees (in beet crops) and butterflies (in beet and spring
rape), were recorded more frequently in and around the conventional crops
because there were more weeds to provide food and cover.
growing GMHT maize was better for many groups of wildlife than conventional
maize. There were more weeds in and around the GMHT maize crops, more
butterflies and bees around at certain times of year, and more weed seeds.'
Simplistically then, a thumbs-up for GMHT maize and a thumbs-down for
beet and spring-sown rape. However, life on a farm is more complicated
than that. As Michael Crawley from Imperial College told the Royal Institution
audience on 16 October, if commercial planting of these crops were allowed,
who's to say which farmers would use them and what management practices
they would adopt? Would it primarily be farmers who currently manage their
farms to minimise weeds anyway who adopt these new crop varieties, or
would there be a high take-up among farmers with weedier fields? The implication
was that the latter scenario would have a greater impact on the amount
of weeds found on British farms and on the wildlife that lives off them.
When it comes to weeds and wildlife the picture isn't simple either.
For example, while the scientists found fewer bees and butterflies in
the GMHT beet crops than in the conventional varieties, they also point
out that 'there are never many bees and butterflies in beet crops'. Apparently
'researchers were often comparing counts of only two or three bees per
field'. They found 'more bumble bees feeding on weeds growing in margins
of the beet and maize fields than in the fields themselves', and 'no differences
in the number of bumble bees on margins of conventional or GM crops' for
all three types of crop studied - beet, maize and spring rape.
They also found 'at least five times as many bumble bees in the fields
of spring rape crops (both GMHT and conventional) than in the beet or
maize crops' and said 'it looks likely that bumble bees will be more affected
by the proportion of farmland growing different crops than whether fields
contain conventional or GM crops'. So if we want more bumble bees at least,
it sounds like we should grow more rape and not worry about GM or not
When it came to butterflies, while researchers found significantly lower
numbers around the field margins of GMHT spring rape and beet compared
to the conventional varieties (though little difference between GM and
conventional maize), the picture is apparently complicated by the high
mobility of butterflies and their ability to fly on until they find the
plants they need elsewhere.
Moving on to the less cute 'soil-surface-active-invertebrates' (beetles,
spiders and the tiny springtails found in the soil), the picture at a
general level seems quite positive. The tiny springtails (maybe two millimetres
long) that break down dead vegetation and return nutrients to the soil
were more abundant in the fields of all three types of GM crops - possibly
because delayed use of herbicides meant the weeds grew larger before being
killed, hence providing a greater source of food to the springtails.
And as David Brooks and Alison Haughton from Rothamsted Research told
us, in general there were no significant differences between GM and non-GM
for any of the crop types as far as abundance and diversity of beetles
and spiders was concerned - though specific species of each fared better
or worse in response to the new management practices.
I found the presentations given by the scientists very interesting. That
said, they have not changed my long-standing belief that the farm-scale
trials have no relevance to the decision about whether the UK should experiment
commercially with GM crops, or whether it should keep farms GM-free. This
bizarre how-many-butterflies-on-a-beet-leaf debate is clearly not what
the GM issue is about - whatever side you take on it.
The opposition to GM crops in the UK is more political than it is scientific.
It is based on a one-sidedly negative account of modern agriculture, scientific
and technological experimentation and the track record of big business
and government. GM, like any other agricultural technology, is bound to
have some kind of impact upon the weeds and insects found in crops - indeed,
this is the point of it.
The fact that this impact has been widely reported as proof of environmental
'damage' indicates that any attempt by farmers to use technology to improve
farming practices today tends to be seen in a negative light. The most
important question at stake in the GM issue - whether the application
of this technology is good for humanity - cannot be resolved at a technical
level and certainly not by counting beetles and weeds.
It is the broader mistrust of modern farming, and the negative sentiments
that lie behind it, that the UK government has consistently found itself
unable to challenge. To date, the government has hidden behind a combination
of waiting for the results of the farm-scale trials, a technical cost-benefit
analysis exercise, calls for more scientific research and regulation,
and a rather lame public consultation exercise in the vague hope that
a decision to move ahead with GM technology might eventually become possible
without it having to win any difficult political arguments or to counter
the cynicism of our times with a positive, progressive vision of the future.
UK environment secretary Margaret Beckett gave a predictably bland response
to the farm-scale trials. 'I shall reflect carefully on these results
and the outcome of the public debate. I have said consistently that the
government is neither pro- nor anti-GM crops - our overriding concern
is to protect human health and the environment, and to ensure genuine
consumer choice,' she said. And it has been reported today that ministers
are likely to delay any decision on the commercial planting of GM crops
until after the general election. It seems that the government is no more
prepared to win the political arguments than it was when it conceded to
the farm-scale trials four years ago, to buy itself more time. -- Tony
Gilland is science and society director of the London-based Institute
Damned If They Do, Damned If They Don't...
- Jim Giles, Nature 425, 656 - 657 (16 October 2003)
It's crunch time for agribiotech in Britain, as politicians rule on the
planting of commercial transgenic crops. The world is watching, says Jim
On trial: whatever the result of Britain's tests of transgenic oilseed
rape, the final decision will also be influenced by Tony Blair's desire
to keep a sceptical public happy. Politicians don't often evoke pity.
But it's hard not to feel some sympathy for the British ministers who
must, over the coming months, decide on whether to give the green light
for the commercial cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops. They're
in a 'no-win' situation.
On the one hand, the government wants to support the biotech industry,
which it sees as a key component of Britain's future economic competitiveness.
It also wants to appease its closest ally, the United States, which is
already fuming over Europe's reluctance to embrace transgenic agriculture.
But surveys have shown that, for now at least, the British public doesn't
want to see GM crops grown commercially. And with the government's popularity
dipping in the wake of the war in Iraq, brazenly defying public opinion
is not an attractive option. "The British government is in a difficult
position," concludes Simon Barber of EuropaBio, a Brussels-based
body that represents Europe's biotech industry.
The arguments over transgenic agriculture have been played out more vociferously
in Britain than in perhaps any other country. This ensures that the government's
decision will resonate beyond the shores of the British Isles, colouring
the debate over transgenic agriculture both at the European level and
Ministers must wish that they could kick the problem into touch and return
to it when the political climate is more favourable. But matters are now
coming to a head, thanks in part to a timetable of the government's own
making. In 1999, as arguments over GM crops raged in the media, the government
announced that applications to begin commercial planting of herbicide-tolerant
GM maize, oilseed rape (or canola) and beet would be put on hold, pending
the results of 'farm-scale evaluations', taking several years, of the
crops' impact on farmland biodiversity. Results from these huge experiments
will be published this week.
Ask the people But public concerns about GM agriculture run wider than
the question of whether herbicide-tolerant crops will disrupt populations
of weeds and invertebrates. There are anxieties about the safety of GM
food, for example, and about whether transgenes will 'pollute' organic
crops. So, over the past few months, the government has embarked upon
an elaborate exercise in evaluation and public consultation. A scientific
panel has reviewed the pros and cons of transgenic agriculture; Prime
Minister Tony Blair's Strategy Unit has considered the economic case;
and the 'GM Nation?' debate, involving more than 600 meetings, has sampled
For the government, it has been a sobering exercise. The scientific panel,
while pointing out areas of uncertainty that need further research, voiced
no fundamental objection to transgenic agriculture. But if Blair hoped
that the public would warm to the idea of GM farming, he was mistaken
the 'GM Nation?' debates revealed hostile attitudes towards the
technology. Although the apparent depth of feeling will have been exaggerated
by the presence of environmental activists at the meetings, other opinion
polls have found little support for the commercialization of GM crops.
And economic specialists have advised the government that there is little
to gain by pressing ahead while consumers remain so suspicious.
Sources in the biotech industry accept that transgenic crops will not
be a money-spinner in Britain until consumer opposition softens, but they
are desperate for the government to send out a positive message by approving
the commercialization, in principle, of herbicide-tolerant GM crops. Without
such a move, they claim, investment and scientific talent will drift away
to more favourable pastures.
Some senior plant-biotech researchers have already announced plans to
leave Britain this year. "Public opposition has caused industry to
bleed away, which reduces funding opportunities and options for the future
employment of students," says Mark Tester of the University of Cambridge,
who is shortly to join the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics
at the University of Adelaide. One company, Bayer CropScience of Hauxton,
near Cambridge, suspended its field trials of GM crops late last month,
complaining that its experimental plots could not be guaranteed protection
from protesters intent on their destruction. Blocking or delaying the
decision to approve transgenic crops for commercial use will exacerbate
these trends. "It would send out a very negative signal," says
It would also widen the rift between the United States and Europe
something that Blair is anxious to avoid. The World Trade Organization
is already considering a complaint brought by the United States against
the European Union (EU) over its failure since 1998 to approve any new
GM crop for commercial planting or human consumption. Thanks to opposition
from countries including Denmark, France, Greece, Italy and Luxembourg,
some 20 pending applications have been left in limbo.
GM agriculture is not the only issue that splits the United States and
Europe the war in Iraq has also soured transatlantic relations.
And as Blair calculates his political future, the two issues could become
entwined. In Britain, doubts about the wisdom of invading Iraq are mounting,
particularly in light of the death of David Kelly, a scientific expert
at the Ministry of Defence. Kelly took his own life after being identified
as the source of a BBC radio story alleging that the government had exaggerated
intelligence on Iraq's weapons capability to win support for the war.
The affair, now the subject of an independent inquiry, has dented public
trust in the government. Against this background, Blair will not want
to be seen as disdainful of public opposition to GM crops.
The farm-scale evaluations could offer an escape route. If they suggest
that GM herbicide-tolerant crops might damage the environment, biotech
firms will have little basis for complaint if approval for commercial
planting is denied or delayed. Some press reports have suggested that
the farm-scale trials will indeed raise red flags against some of the
tested crops. But with the scientists involved keeping the results under
a strict embargo, the truth will only be unveiled this week.
Stalling tactics If the farm-scale trials contain no showstoppers, the
best bet for the government would be to delay the decision until public
disquiet over Iraq and Kelly has subsided. The government has already
pledged to refer the results of the farm-scale evaluations to an expert
scientific panel, the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment.
Awaiting its advice will probably delay things until January. A second
set of results from the trials, based on winter planting of oilseed rape,
is due out in the middle of next year, and could be used to stall a decision
But by then, the government's hand may have been forced by events at
the European level. Following the drafting of strict new rules on labelling
of GM produce, together with requirements that should allow transgenic
ingredients to be traced from farm to fork, the stalled process of approving
GM crops for growth and sale in the EU is expected to resume around the
turn of the year.
Even if developments in Brussels mean that the British government has
little choice but to sanction the commercial planting of GM herbicide-tolerant
crops in principle, it might be able to placate public opinion in other
ways. When the EU's provisions for tracing and labelling GM foods were
agreed last July, member states were given the freedom to set their own
'coexistence' rules designed to minimize cross-pollination between
GM and non-GM crops. "Tough legislation in this area would knock
commercial planting on its head," says a senior figure in one environmental
The Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission, another government
advisory body, is currently grappling with the issue of coexistence, and
is due to report any day soon. Opponents of transgenic farming argue,
for example, that fields used to grow GM crops should subsequently be
kept free of non-GM varieties for several years; the biotech industry
retorts that such measures would make transgenic crops uneconomical.
New laws on liability could also make commercial planting financially
unattractive. Environmental groups point out that forcing agribiotech
companies to take legal responsibility if transgenes spread to organic
crops, or have unforeseen effects on biodiversity, could provide another
way for the government to approve the crops while ensuring that they are
unlikely to be grown.
The biotech industry, meanwhile, may prefer a compromise that makes commercialization
contingent on stringent scientific monitoring, while setting limits on
the total area that can be cultivated. It is unclear whether such limits
would be allowed under EU law, but they would suit agribiotech firms in
the short term especially as consumer demand is so low.
The government's eventual strategy may depend on Blair's popularity in
the coming months, which in turn rests on the report of the inquiry into
Kelly's death. "If Blair comes out badly, he won't want to take risks,"
says one British expert in food and environmental policy. Blair might
then try to show that he is in tune with public opinion by bringing in
rules that effectively shelve the introduction of transgenic agriculture.
"This is a political decision, not a scientific one," agrees
If these predictions are correct, it would be an odd end to a debate
in which environmental groups and the agribiotech industry have invested
enormous effort. It would also be demoralizing for researchers who have
devoted the past four years to the farm-scale evaluations not to
mention everyone involved in this summer's huge evaluation and consultation
exercise. But that's politics for you.
FSE Results Published Today - Scimac Statement
The Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops , October
16, 2003 (Daniel Pearsall <firstname.lastname@example.org> )
Today's publication by the Royal Society of the scientific results of
the UK Farm-Scale Evaluations (FSEs) for spring-sown GM crops is cause
for celebrating the efforts of all involved in delivering the most extensive
programme of ecological research ever conducted in arable agriculture.
First and foremost, SCIMAC wishes to congratulate the research scientists
on this achievement, and pay tribute to the enormous contribution of participating
farmers, often under difficult conditions, in delivering trial sites to
meet the data requirements of this pioneering study.
The results themselves will take some time to digest in full, but it
is immediately clear that the differences between the crops studied is
governed above all by the crop type, herbicides and weed control practices
involved, not by the use of genetic modification. This is a point highlighted
throughout by the reports' authors.
For maize, today's results have demonstrated the role GM technology has
to play in benefiting farmland biodiversity, even under standard management
regimes. The priority for other GM HT crops now lies in the development
and application of management options which can achieve a similar outcome.
One of the key advantages of GM herbicide tolerance technology is the
increased flexibility it offers growers in their control of weeds. The
Farm-Scale Evaluation results must now be considered in the context of
other research which has shown that varying the timing, rate and targeting
of herbicide applications in GM crops can have a significant influence
on biodiversity impact. The FSEs did not evaluate other management options,
nor were they intended to.
The FSEs have also provided a unique opportunity to prove that co-existence
of GM and non-GM crops is possible. The SCIMAC on-farm guidelines have
been applied and audited at all FSE sites, and clearly demonstrate that
co-existence can be achieved under practical farming conditions, so allowing
choice for farmers and their customers.
In addition to co-existence, this framework of guidelines can equally
be adapted to address other objectives, such as the need to protect farmland
biodiversity. This will now be the focus of efforts to ensure farmers
in the UK are able to access the advantages of a technology already enjoyed
by millions of farmers worldwide.
-- The Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops (SCIMAC)
is a grouping of industry organisations representing farmers, plant breeders,
the seed trade and biotechnology companies. Member organisations share
a commitment to the open, responsible and effective introduction of GM
crops in the UK.
Ecology vs. Agronomy
- Andrew Apel <email@example.com>
The unfortunate conclusion and aftermath of the farm-scale field trials
of GM crops in Great Britain have sparked what appears to be a division
among scientists and a cowardly government, but that is not the full story.
While leading scientists rail against the British government, they ignore
something far worse within their own community; the ascendance of ecologism.
In his official summation of the results of the lengthy, hugely expensive
and embattled field trials, ecologist Les Firbank intruded into the journal
of Britain's Royal Society the fatuous notion of "arable weeds"
and said the result of the effort "emphasizes the importance of the
weeds growing among crop plants."
The British media, which years ago resolved -- in public -- to distort
its presentation of news about biotechnology, had a field day. Overnight,
weed control became synonymous with an assault on "biodiversity,"
a notion cherished by the activist groups which hold hostage the governments
of Britain and Europe (they're voluntary hostages, but that's another
Britain's plant biotechnology is experiencing a steep decline, with dwindling
investment and a hostile minority of vandals who attack field trials with
impunity. No one need worry about further vandalism: the country now has
no field trials of experimental crops, anywhere, and it appears none are
The bizarre conclusion that weed control among GM crops was an assault
on biodiversity, accompanied by the feeding frenzy of a press that boasts
of its bias, finally sparked an outcry by scientists. In a statement endorsed
by over one hundred of them, including Nobel laureates, they accused the
British government of promoting efforts that were co-opted by anti-biotech
activists, and of refusing to correct their intentional misrepresentations.
David King, the British governments chief scientist, dismissed
the concerns expressed by the scientists in an off-hand way. And Britain's
Prime Minister Tony Blair contradicted himself, saying that governmental
decisions about agricultural biotechnology will be based on science, but
also that "the government has got no interest in this [GM] one way
or another." (I.e., the government is interested in facts but prefers
to ignore them.)
How can all this be? The farm-scale field trials were funded by the British
government, conducted by British scientists and the conclusions reached
via those trials were presented by British scientists, but they were protested
by British scientists. Putting yellow journalism aside for the moment,
how is it possible to explain what appears to be a rift in the scientific
community, with scientists complaining about scientists?
The conclusion is fairly obvious: Britain's scientific community, like
its government, has been infested by ecologism and ecologists and the
British government, with its massive ability to fund dubious enterprises,
embarked on an enterprise founded on the notion that farm fields must
be evaluated in the same manner as a meadow or a rain forest.
The most valuable lesson of Britain's farm-scale field trials is not
that weed control reduces biodiversity; that conclusion could easily have
been reached from an armchair years ago, at far less expense. It is, rather,
that ecologists play just as important a role in agronomy as weeds and
bugs in farming. Some scientists, like weeds and pests, should stick to
their own "fields."
Biodiversity and Agriculture: A Review of the
Impact of Agricultural Biotechnology on Biodiversity
Dear Friends at AgBioView, thanks for posting my report, here is the
latest and much enhanced final version, just finished two days ago:
- Klaus Ammann
Contributions - Nov 18, 2003)