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Analysis and Comments on The Farm Scale Evaluations of GM Crops in UK
Compiled from postings to AgBioView Newsletter of http://www.agbioworld.org

Some Key Points on UK Farm-Scale Evaluation Reports

(AgBioView Contributions)

(More AgBioView Contributions - Nov 18, 2003)

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.

Key Considerations:

-- 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 crops.

-- The results of the FSEs cannot be generalized beyond the UK agricultural ecosystem and the three crops and weed management systems studied.

The Findings:

-- 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 weeds.

-- 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.

Other Considerations:

-- 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 productivity.

-- 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 natural resources.

-- 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.

Analysis and Comments on The Farm Scale Evaluations of GM Crops in UK
Compiled from postings to AgBioView Newsletter of http://www.agbioworld.org/

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:

Biological Sciences Series:

Farm-scale evaluations: http://www.defra.gov.uk/environment/gm/fse/index.htm

Science review: http://www.gmsciencedebate.org.uk

Economic review: http://www.number-10.gov.uk/su/gm/index.htm

'GM Nation?' public debate: http://www.gmnation.org.uk


Asking the Wrong Questions?

'Anti-GM activists 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 unacceptable."

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 in 2004.

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 observed.

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 earlier.'

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 benefits.

* 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 impact.

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


Farming on Trial

- 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, November 2003

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 weeds.

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) <dmurphy2@glam.ac.uk>

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 abroad". http://www.timesonline.co.uk/newspaper/0,,174-874930,00.html

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 HM Government

- 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 government’s 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 government’s 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 government’s 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, Australia <christopher.preston@adelaide.edu.au>

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 crops.


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 <wparrott@uga.cc.uga.edu>

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 microfauna.

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 <rdmacgregor@gov.pe.ca>

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 particular weeds.

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.… In contrast, 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 GM.

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 of Ideas.


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 Giles.

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 beyond.

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 public opinion.

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 Barber.

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 yet further.

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 organization.

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 Tester.

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 <daniel.pearsall@chamberlain.uk.com> )

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 <agbionews@earthlink.net>

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 matter).

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 planned.

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 government’s 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

(More AgBioView Contributions - Nov 18, 2003)