Monsanto warns of lawnmower threat! (7/10/2003)

Here's the latest crop of Guardian letters. It's a little rich for Monsanto (item 1) to talk up "Independent research at the Brooms Barn centre" when it was part-funded by Monsanto as part of a long history of collaboration - some might say collusion - between the company and the Broom's Barn researchers that has included pre-publication press tours and a pattern of hyping trial "results" to the media - see item 2 below

But perhaps Monsanto aren't the only ones not making full disclosures here. The last Guardian letter from Prof David Walker makes no reference to his not only being a Fellow of the Royal Society, who have played such a controversial part in this debate, but his having contributed to an RS report on GM. Presumably he just forgot to add the 'FRS'.

Incidentally, Monsanto's "lawnmower threat" is reminiscent of their prvious attempt to blame the decline of farmland birds in the UK not on agrochemicals but on cats, prompting the chief executive of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) to retort, "The fact that Monsanto has now resorted to blaming cats for the decline in farmland birds simply adds to the impression that it is only the enviromental groups who are putting forward arguments based on Science."

1.Lawnmower threat to biodiversity says Monsanto
2.Monsanto and Broom's Barn - 'Fixing on the farm'
1.Lawnmower threat to biodiversity says Monsanto
Lawnmower threat to biodiversity
Tuesday October 7, 2003
Letters, The Guardian

Mark Avery says (Letters, October 6) that control of weeds in farmers' fields is sufficient reason to ban GM crops. Surely then, the RSPB must also call for a ban on ploughing and gas burners used in organic farming, which destroy millions of plants and insects. Indeed, for that matter, should it not be calling for a ban on mowing lawns?

Or is it perhaps time we stopped this line of argument in favour of a balanced scientific assessment? Independent research at the Brooms Barn centre has already shown that GM sugar beet is a management tool which can be used to increase plant and insect numbers; so could it not be argued that farmers be encouraged to grow this crop?

Dr Colin Merritt 
Biotechnology development manager, Monsanto UK

Greenpeace accuses us of bias because we refuse to back campaigns, based solely on ideology or commercial interests, that oppose or promote GM technology. If Greenpeace really is interested in debate informed by the facts, why did its supporters try to prevent the farm-scale research, the results of which will be published next week, by trashing crop trial sites?

Stephen Cox 
Secretary, The Royal Society

The desire for weed-free fields is not an evil ambition. The North American wheat crop, which feeds a large percentage of the world's population, has increased five-fold since the 1950s - largely due to aerial spraying of selective herbicides. It is equally bad for biodiversity if a weed-free field is achieved by GM plus herbicide, herbicide alone, or hand-weeding. Those who wish to put aside the democratic process to "slash GM crops" might bear in mind that the most desirable environment is largely incompatible with intensive agriculture. 

Contemporary agriculture leaves 1 billion people without enough food. This number continues to rise as the world population increases by about 350,000 daily. The world is not awash with food. Reserves stand at about 40% of annual consumption. Two or three droughts in the wheat belt would put more than those who don't have enough money to buy food in danger of starvation. GM won't fix that, but it might help. Those who support GM are not all in the pay of multinationals.

(Prof) David Walker
2. Monsanto and Broom's Barn
Excerpt from 'Fixing on the farm'
by Steph Roth and Jonathan Matthews
The Ecologist, Vol 32, No 2, March 2002

Unless the [UK's farmscale] trials provide no evidence that growing GM crops causes more damage to biodiversity than modern industrial farming (which has already had a devastating impact on the countryside), commercial approval of the technology will be unsellable in a country where farmland and wildlife are more or less inseparable.

Thus, ironically, while herbicide-resistant GM crops have been hyped to farmers as a high performing means of getting "clean" weed-free fields, and that's exactly how they are being used by famers in North America, the covert goal of the UK trials has become the production of a bumper crop of British weeds!

The first clue as to what was afoot emerged back in 1998 when Monsanto began conducting press tours of GM crop trials run by scientists from the Institute of Arable Crops Research [Broom's Barn]. The IACR scientists had allowed weeds to grow to an advanced stage amongst Monsanto's herbicide-resistant beet before being sprayed with Roundup. The herbicide, as intended, killed everything except the GM beet but the remaining hefty plant population rotted down to produce a deep mulch, which Monsanto claimed was supporting insect life that would in turn support other wildlife.

Large sections of the farming and general media were taken in: "Genetically engineered crops can save farmers money, reduce chemical spraying and create a better habitat for birds and insects, scientists claimed yesterday", reported The Times under the title, "Modified crops help man and wildlife".

When, nearly two-years later, the relevant IACR study was finally published[1], it turned out that the delayed herbicide application produced heavy yield losses. In other words, letting the weeds grow late caused a yield penalty that farmers would be unlikely to accept. Yet despite this, late herbicide application is exactly the kind of unrealistic approach which farmers currently involved in the farm scale evaluation are being advised to adopt in order to "enhance" the GM crops profile in terms of biodiversity.

The IACR researchers who pioneered this approach are, in fact, among the senior scientists now overseeing the FSEs[2] while the institute which allowed Monsanto to spin their industry-funded study two-years ahead of publication, is one of the principal scientific contractors carrying out the trials[3]. IACR has, needless to say, formed partnerships with a string of biotechnology companies[4]. Attitudes at the institute are so corporate friendly, in fact, that one of the co-authors of a report to government on the trials, progress is among several IACR scientists who have simultaneously worked for the biotech-industry financed pro-GM lobby, CropGen.[5]

Is it any wonder, then, that we're failing to get a realistic assessment of the risks of GM crops? Or that while 'independent' science is busy sacrificing the public good to private interests, it is down to the vigilant watchers out in the driving sleet and rain at Munlochy to bear witness to what has all the appearances of a farm scale fraud.

[1] "Delayed control of weeds in glyphosate-tolerant sugar beet and the consequences on aphid infestation and yield" authored by Alan M Dewar, Lisa A Haylock, Kathy M Bean, Mike J May of IACR-Broom's Barn, Pest Management Science, Vol 56, Issue 4, 2000. p 345-350 (April 2000)

[2] Alan Dewar and Mike May

[3] The FSEs are being carried out by a consortium of three organisations: the Institute of Arable Crops Research (IACR) the Scottish Crop Research Institute (SCRI) and the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology (ITE)

[4] 'Our partners include AgrEvo [now Aventis) DuPont , Novartis and
Syngenta.' http://www.iacr.bbsrc.ac.uk/corporate/partners/tpartners.html

[5] 'Dr Lutman is co-author of a report to the government on the progress of the trials,
UK Government 'should sack GM adviser' Thursday, 16 March, 2000, 00:07 GMT

Lutman is Head of Research Programme Weed Biology and Control at the Institute of Arable Crops Research and was at the time of the article one of three IACR scientists working with CropGen.

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