GM crop technology on trial (6/10/2003)

Lots of interesting letters following last week's Guardian articles suggesting 2 of the 3 GM crops trialled in the UK's farmscale evaluations (FSEs) have proven harmful for biodiversity.

Note particularly the comments of GM trial farmer, Guy Smith, who's also a member of the biotech industry funded lobby group, CropGen. Smith gives the game away: "You tell me the field trials have shown GM crops are bad things because they have no weeds in them. For years I have dreamt of a weed-free farm... all GM plants have to offer me is weed-free crops".

But the industry has been encouraging the farmers taking part in the farmscale evaluations to use late applications of herbicides in the GM parts of the trials with the aim ofo encouraging weed growth. This they hoped would show GM crops as good for biodiversity, on the basis that more weeds and seeds in the GM parts of the field would mean more insect life and more food for birds.

While this strategy appears to have failed with 2 of the 3 crops on trial, Smith's letter confirms what everybody knows. That the way the FSEs have been conducted is a sham bearing no relation to how farmers pursuing weed-free fields and maximum yields will actually grow the crops. 

If the trials show these crops are bad for wildlife, the reality of their commercial use would be many times worse.
GM crop technology on trial
Monday October 6, 2003
Letters, The Guardian

Yet again, we have the assertion that in the GM crops debate the future of Britain's scientific base is at stake (Field trials raise pressure on government, October 2). I am neither anti-science nor anti-molecular biology - just as I am not anti-physics because I oppose nuclear weapons.

What the arguments about "science base" really mean is that an opportunity to make money could be lost. It would not harm scientific endeavour to eschew GM agriculture, which is merely a technology in any case. The proponents of GM crops are arguing for a privileging of their field over, say, studying biodiversity. Unfortunately, the science of biodiversity is complex and the potential financial returns (to agribusiness) small, the exact opposite of GM crop technology. It's no surprise that the money goes into a field that has now been shown conclusively to damage biodiversity.

Philip Ward

Your report caused such a stir at the European parliament's environment committee, it may have cleared the way for a UK ban. Aides to consumer protection commissioner David Byrne frantically sought faxed copies of your articles as he was grilled by MEPs. Eventually Mr Byrne said any threat to biodiversity should be considered under the wider question of whether GM and non-GM crops can safely coexist - and as such is a national competency.  The government can no longer claim its hands are tied on GM by the EU. Your coverage has prompted the commission to admit for the first time the possibility of a GM-free UK, in line with the clearly stated wishes of the majority of the country. Well done.
Dr Caroline Lucas MEP
Green, SE England 

The GM issue will test the government's credibility on sustainable development. If the weedkillers used with GM beet and rape cut insect and plant numbers to even lower levels than found in conventional crops, then the consequences for farmland birds are serious. UK farmland bird populations have already fallen more dramatically than in other European countries because of intensive farming. The government uses bird population levels as one of its quality of life indicators and has adopted a target of reversing bird declines by 2020. If the results you report are correct, then the government is boxed in - it must ban these GM crops.    

Dr Mark Avery 

You tell me the field trials have shown GM crops are bad things because they have no weeds in them. For years I have dreamt of a weed-free farm and garden. I have sprayed weedkillers and attacked them with organic hoes, as weeds contaminate my farm crops with poisons and swamp my garden vegetables. So all GM plants have to offer me is weed-free crops ... Why, I wonder, would 5 million farmers on five continents around the world want to sow GM seeds?

Guy Smith [GM trial farmer and a member of the GM lobby group CropGen] St Osyth, Essex 

GM is a war launched by the big US corporations in their relentless pursuit of profit and growth. As such there is little difference to the war launched in Iraq for control of its oil and industries. The only difference is that the bullying corporate army is led by Monsanto and Syngenta, rather than by Bechtel and Halliburton.

I am not against genetic engineering. But while the sole motivation is profit, corners will be cut and health implications ignored. Our only hope is to scare the government more than the biotech industry is doing. So we are uniting with groups in the City and elsewhere, collecting names of those prepared to travel and slash GM crops wherever they are grown.     

Hector Christie
Instow, Devon  

The Royal Society says the public debate showed people wanted to be sure the information they get does not reflect the influence of any special interest group. True, but who do the public think is more likley to represent a special interest- the Royal Society or the Guardian? After all, it is the society which has gained such a reputation for its pro-GM opinions, while claiming that it merely represents "the science".

Ben Ayliffe
GM campaigner, Greenpeace

Rod Parfitt (Letters, October 1) is sadly right. In addition to the job losses at Long Ashton, many of us at IACR in Harpenden were made redundant too, to help pay for the new building. Swaths of expertise were lost, as the institute was forced to cut its costs and concentrate on fashionable areas of science. I was the sole expert left in one aspect of nitrogen nutrition, but forced into early retirement. Cheap short-term contracts for young and inexperienced staff have replaced long-established expertise, so I am not surprised that senior scientists with good skills are looking overseas.

Dr Roger Wallsgrove
Redbourn, Herts

Surely it is the pesticides/ herbicides used, not the GM crops per se that are the problem? The public need to be helped to understand that GM as a technology (insertion of genes into a plant genome) is an advance on conventional plant crossing and breeding that has been done for decades to improve crop viability. GM technology has the potential to be of global benefit, if used responsibly - and if supported by the public.

Dr Sophie Lewis 

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