London (March 30th, 2005) – Last week,
the results were announced of the fourth of Britain’s Farm Scale Evaluations,
that of winter-sown oilseed rape.
Perhaps recognising that this might be the last great opportunity for a while for a major anti-GM demonstration, the opposing media and their allies in the pressure groups went into a frenzy. Quick off the mark the next day were The Guardian with “Damning verdict on GM crop” and The Daily Mail telling us about “The GM crops that pose deadly threat to birds and bees”. The Independent beat both of them by splashing across its front page “The end for GM crops - Final British trial confirms threat to wildlife”. Having had time to think, by the following day The Daily Mail pronounced that it had been “Vindicated”. By comparison, the BBC with “GM study shows potential 'harm'” (note ‘harm’ in quotation marks) and The Evening Standard (“Scientists - Public are irrational over GM”) were comparatively mild and reasonable.
The trials in question used Bayer’s oilseed rape modified to herbicide tolerance, so allowing weeds to be controlled with glufosinate-ammonium. The data showed that, compared with the non-GM areas, broad-leaf weeds in the GM plots were reduced in numbers, hardly surprising since the purpose of weed-killers is to kill weeds. Bees and butterflies that forage and select for those weeds were less abundant. Grassy weeds, by contrast, increased in number, with the populations of some other insects also up while many were unaffected. That was the basis for the headlines and the stories which followed them.
Taking all four crop trial studies together, it is quite clear that there was much greater variation between crops than there was for GM compared with non-GM. Inevitably, changes to agricultural practices, whatever they are, impact the local flora and fauna. Nature is neither rigid nor in equilibrium; it is an equilibrating system which reacts to perturbations. Such changes can alter the agro-ecosystem of the crops in question but without any significant effect on the broader environment. Calls for banning GM herbicide-tolerant crops on the basis of this report are totally uncalled for and scientifically untenable.
Agricultural practices change constantly as scientific progress in agriculture offers new opportunities. Had similar studies been carried out every time a new variety, a new farming technology or a new chemical had been introduced, we would by now have a formidable record of those environmental impacts. If the mood of the anti-GM campaigners had held sway, we would have been petrified to do anything new and would still be out there living off wild berries – if our neighbours had left us any.
All changes have impacts which, depending on what they are, have to be managed. The important question is always whether perceived hazards are worth perceived risks. The answer must be “yes” as those practices that were economically beneficial survived and those that did not were discarded. This latest study gives no grounds for losing any sleep except over the damage done by the objectors to UK agriculture and science.
So where are we now?
Across the world farmers are taking up herbicide-resistant soya because it makes weed control easier and cheaper. These are the very reasons why British farmers are not allowed to grow them. Couple this with the fact that we import GM soya into this country – and it lowers the world price of our own home-grown oilseeds – we end up with a pretty ruinous agricultural policy that exports production to foreign lands along with our science and our scientists.
Are we setting a precedent here whereby all methods of weed control are to be banned if they are seen to have an impact on the wider ecology. Or is it just GM that is singled out for this special treatment. If so, why?
One particularly emotional aspect concerns the numbers of “farmland birds” which feed on the weed seeds and the invertebrates; their numbers appear to have fallen in recent years. But there is no agreed definition of “farmland birds”: is it where they nest or where they forage or where they mate or where they roost or whether they are migratory? It seems to depend primarily on the opinion expressed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. On the other hand, the British Trust for Ornithology identify 21 species of bird which they define as “Farmland” and which have actually increased over the last thirty years….
What all this means for biotechnology in UK agriculture is that, for the next few years at least, we will fall further behind that half of humanity which is forging ahead. Eventually (as always) we will have to get on board but not before immense damage has been done to our country by which time the pressure groups primarily responsible will off chasing other red herrings.
1. David A. Bohan, Caroline W. H. Boffey, David R. Brooks, Suzanne J. Clark, Alan M. Dewar, Les G. Firbank, Alison J. Haughton, Cathy Hawes, Matthew S. Heard, Mike J. May, Juliet L. Osborne, Joe N. Perry, Peter Rothery, David B. Roy, Rod J. Scott, Geoff R. Squire Ian P. Woiwod and Gillian T. Champion (2005). “Effects on weed and invertebrate abundance and diversity of herbicide management in genetically modified herbicide-tolerant winter-sown oilseed rape.” Proceeings of the Royal Society B, 272, 464-473 (http://www.pubs.royalsoc.ac.uk/proc_bio_bohan.shtml).
Download the full paper from http:// www.pubs.royalsoc.ac.uk/proc_bio_content/pdf/rspb20043049.pdf and the electronic appendix from http://www.pubs.royalsoc.ac.uk/proc_bio_content/pdf/rspb20043049supp.pdf
2. Damning verdict on GM crop. The Guardian (22.3.05) (http://www.guardian.co.uk/gmdebate/Story/0,2763,1443002,00.html?gusrc=rss)
3. The GM crops that pose deadly threat to birds and bees. The Daily Mail (22.3.05)
4. The end for GM crops - Final British trial confirms threat to wildlife. The Independent (22.3.05) (http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/environment/story.jsp?story=622479)
5. Vindicated. The Daily Mail (23.3.05)
6. GM study shows potential 'harm'. BBC News (21.3.05) (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4368495.stm)
7. Scientists: Public are irrational over GM. Evening Standard (21.3.05)