GM trials - or GM on trial? / What the UK government's wildlife advisors really think (15/10/2003)

"If I were being cynical I would say that Aventis told the govt that only [the herbicide glufosinate ammonium] would be used on these crops in the hope that more weeds would survive in the [their GM] crops in the FSEs.  If so, and I have no idea that this is right, then they could argue that the GM crops were better for the environment!  They might then gain marketing consent for [their GM] crops, only for the company then to change the pesticide recommendations to ATZ-type tank mixes." - Brian Johnson, English Nature - the UK government's wildlife advisors

ATZ refers to Atrazine

1.GM trials - or GM on trial? - Pesticide Action Network UK
2."If I were being cynical..." What the UK government's wildlife advisors really think
1.GM trials - or GM on trial?
Pesticide Action Network UK
Press release 11 am Wednesday 15 October  2003

Pesticide Action Network UK claimed today that the genetically modified (GM) maize trials, whose results will be released tomorrow, cannot provide guidance for actual pesticide use or the effects of these GM crops on the environment.

The trials used only the herbicide glufosinate ammonium, whose trade name is 'Liberty', to control weeds in the GM crops. But evidence from America shows that up to 90% of farmers growing 'LibertyLink' GM maize buy a pre-packaged mix of glufosinate ammonium and atrazine to control their weeds.(1)

Atrazine, which was used on the control crops in the British trials, has been considered acceptable for use but was effectively banned for use in agriculture in Europe last week.(2) It persists in ground water and is an endocrine-disrupting pesticide that will confuse animal hormone systems.

Maize farmers in the UK have been using increasing amounts of atrazine in recent years. It seems highly likely that if UK farmers grow GM maize, they would want the same mixed formulations as US farmers: if not with atrazine then with other powerful herbicides.

Alternatively, farmers may use increased doses of glufosinate ammonium to control weeds. Although there are company assurances that glufosinate is 'totally benign',(3) a number of concerns have been identified at high doses.(4)

A sound strategy for pesticide reduction needs to be based on whole crop management, and not on a technology that requires the use of chemical herbicides. But efforts to investigate ecological methods of pest management are declining as commercial interests drive agricultural research. GM crops are promoted as the new technology with the potential to reduce both insecticide and herbicide use. But the available GM crops on the market are almost all owned and sold by agrochemical corporations, and are designed to sell a technology rather than develop a system.(5)

Some of the GM-linked herbicides are considered 'safe' compared to earlier generations. But increasing applications of a narrow range of herbicides associated with GM crops are likely to produce health and environmental side effects with these chemicals. Some problems are already emerging.

The most used GM-linked herbicide is Monsanto's glyphosate, the basis of 'RoundUp Ready' GM crops. Widely used in conventional agriculture, it is promoted as one of the least hazardous herbicides. It is now being found in groundwater in Denmark at a rate five times more than the allowed level for drinking water in Europe.(6) As a result Denmark imposed a ban on glyphosate spraying from 15 September 2003.

Cross-pollination between GM plants and wild relatives will create superweeds. And GM plants will escape (known as 'volunteers') and grow in unwanted places. More sprays will be used to control these weeds. A group of Canadian farmers, who visited Britain earlier this year to point out these dangers, said they have been forced to revert to 2,4-D, an old and hazardous pesticide, on volunteer oil seed rape (called canola in Canada).(7)  Another problem if GM crops are widely grown will be resistance of insect or weed pests to the linked chemicals.

Commercial production of the GM crops on trial would conflict with the UK government development of a new 'national pesticide strategy' by the end of 2003 to minimize pesticide use.(8) Barbara Dinham, Director of PAN UK, says "the government needs to ensure that this strategy will reduce the use of pesticides in the UK. What is needed are sustainable systems that will eliminate the hazards and risks to health and the environment of pesticides."(9)

With the increasing pressure on developing countries to allow production of GM crops, and emotive language that GM is the best solution to world hunger, it is vital that the UK sets high standards and fully tests the safety of the technology. GM technology is not addressing the basic needs of agricultural development and poverty, which is to increase access to safe and affordable food and pay farmers a fair price for their crops.

British farmers don't need GM crops but they do need support in shifting to safer and more sustainable pest management strategies, as demanded by consumers, public interest groups and as promoted by an increasing number of EU Member States.  PAN UK urges the British government to make sure our farmers don't fall behind in the move to produce safer food and a healthy environment.

PAN UK: Telephone 020 7274 8895
Barbara Dinham, Simon Ferrigno, Roslyn McKendry, David Buffin
(1) Professor Mike Owen of Iowa State University estimated at least 75% and probably 90% of the pre-packaged mixes bought by US farmers growing 'LibertyLink' maize contain atrazine along with glufosinate ammonium. Aventis (now Bayer) sells the product as Liberty ATZ [atrazine].

(2) Local authority use of atrazine in the UK was banned in 1992 because use on hard surfaces resulted in it going straight into drains and showing up in groundwater.

(3) Dennis Campbell, Bayer Crop Science, Newsnight, 25 June 2003.

(4)  Glufosinate ammonium fact sheet, Pesticides News, December 1998,

(5)  In 2002, herbicide-tolerant crops represented 67% of GM sales and insect resistant crops (incorporating Bacillus thuringiensis) made up 20%. The balance is largely 'stacked' genes incorporating both herbicide and insect resistance.

(6) Based on tests done by the Denmark and Greenland Geological Research Institution (DGGRI) in an as yet unpublished article, see
http://politiken.dk/VisArtikel.sasp?PageID=269614 25may03

(7)  Sue Mayer, GM cotton: implications for smallscale farmers' , PAN UK, 2002;  Seeds of Doubt, Soil Association, 2002; Canadian oil seed rape (canola) farmers, Portcullis House, London, 2003.

(8)  The UK pesticide minimization strategy will implement the European Union's Sixth Environmental Action Plan to "Reduce the impacts of pesticides on human health and the environment and more generally to achieve a more sustainable use of pesticides consistent with the necessary crop protection."

(9)  Breaking the Pesticide Chain: the alternatives to pesticides coming off the European Union market, Friends of the Earth and PAN UK, July 2003.
2.Fixing the farmscale trials - items from the archive

"If I were being cynical...."
- Brian Johnson, English Nature - the UK government's wildlife advisors
-Email: [email protected]
-Friday, July 12, 2002 10:07

This comes from correspondence between Brian Johnson and Roger Mainwood at:

The full text including the correspondence is given below.

Norfolk Genetic Information Network

22 July 2002


"If I were being cynical I would say that Aventis told the govt that only GA would be used on these crops in the hope that more weeds would survive in the LL crops in the FSEs.  If so, and I have no idea that this is right, then they could argue that the GM crops were better for the environment!  They might then gain marketing consent for LL crops, only for the company then to change the pesticide recommendations to ATZ-type tank mixes." - Brian Johnson, English Nature - the UK government's wildlife advisors

ATZ refers to Atrazine - a hormone disrupting EU Red List herbicide that has been a problem in watercourses in the UK for decades
Source: Roger Mainwood <[email protected]>

The following press release has been sent out by CROW (Concerned Residents of Wivenhoe).

DEFRA are clearly worried about the Liberty ATZ question and how it will impact on the validity of the farm scale trials.

If anyone feels like doing a bit of lobbying on this, then now would be a good time to suggest to DEFRA that the original risk assessment for Liberty Link crops was invalid because it stated that only Glufosinate Ammonium would be used, and we now know that is not the case in most parts of the US where such crops are grown.

e-mails to Margaret Beckett should be sent to
[email protected]

CROW press release

Norfolk Genetic Information Network (ngin),
Monday July 22nd 2002

ENGLISH NATURE TELLS LOCAL GM CROP TRIAL CAMPAIGNERS "DEFRA may feel that the results may not be valid "

Campaigners in Wivenhoe, Essex, who have opposed the Government trials of genetically modified (GM) maize on a nearby farm have received some information that they describe as "dynamite".

Dr Brian Johnson, the head of English Nature's biotechnology unit has revealed in a series of candid e-mails to the group that DEFRA, the Government department overseeing the GM trials, may feel that the £5 million pounds spent on them has been wasted because the herbicide being used on the GM crops is likely to be different to what would be used commercially.

English Nature is a Government funded body and to date has leant its support to the GM trials. It wrote to the group CROW (Concerned Residents Of Wivenhoe) in May 2000 shortly after the first GM trial at Sunnymead Farm Wivenhoe had been announced, to say..........

----- Original Message -----
From: <[email protected]>
To: <[email protected]>
Sent: 18 May 2000 14:35
Subject: Re: GM policy statement

.........we are content for the farm scale plantings to go ahead, since they will enable us to assess the real risks of GM herbicide tolerant crops, i.e. the impacts on farmland biodiversity of using broad-spectrum herbicides over the whole crop during the growing season.   This system may be more damaging to farmland wildlife than present herbicide regimes.  The field scale trials are primarily set up to assess this, and the information from the trials wiil be used by the UK regulatory system to help make scientifically and legally defensible decisions about whether these crops should be grown commercially in the UK.  Yours sincerely, Dr Brian Johnson

However recent evidence revealed by Friends of the Earth, and first presented on BBC2's Newsnight programme (1), has shown that in the US a majority of farmers that are growing genetically modified maize are using a different type of herbicide to the one being used in the UK trials.

In the UK trials glufosinate ammonium (GA), which has a trade name Liberty,  is being used on the GM maize. Although this herbicide was used in the  States when GM maize was first grown, a majority of farmers found it  unsatisfactory and have turned to using another product that is a mixture of Liberty and Atrazine, called Liberty ATZ.

Claims have been made by Aventis, the GM seed and herbicide company involved in the trials, that Liberty is less harmful than atrazine which is used most commonly on conventional maize at present.

Campaigners in Wivenhoe have argued throughout the three years of the trials that by introducing GM crops, one form of intensive farming will simply be swapped for another , and the trials as they are designed will not give a true picture of the way the crops will be grown commercially.

These concerns are now being voiced behind the scenes in Government circles.

Here is the first e-mail that we received from English Nature that makes reference to this. LL maize that is mentioned refers to the trade name Chardon LL, which is the type of maize being grown on farms at Wivenhoe and Weeley in Essex, and "osr" refers to the GM oilseed rape that is being grown on farms in other parts of the UK.

 ----- Original Message -----
From: <[email protected]>
To: <[email protected]>
Sent: Thursday, July 11, 2002 11:22
Subject: Re: Liberty ATZ
You may be interested to know that DEFRA are less than pleased with Aventis and they may require them to resubmit the applications for LL maize and osr, which starts the regulatory process all over again! I'll let you know if they decide to go ahead.
Best wishes

We then asked for some further explanation of what it was that Aventis had done that would have made DEFRA "less than pleased". We received the following reply............

----- Original Message -----
From: <[email protected]>
To: <[email protected]>
Sent: Thursday, July 11, 2002 02:49
Subject: Re: Liberty ATZ
Not certain but it could be that they feel that Aventis have not been entirely open about herbicide use on LL crops.  As DEFRA has spent over £5M on field scale trials that assumed that only GA would be used on the LL osr and maize, they may feel that the results may not be valid because in  reality farmers would use ATZ! Brian

Further enquiries of English Nature, revealed even more about the

----- Original Message -----
From: <[email protected]>
To: <[email protected]>
Sent: Friday, July 12, 2002 10:07
Subject: Re: Liberty ATZ

Eventually the Pesticides Safety Division may need a submission to cover the use of ATZ.  It is my view that Aventis would fail to get the pesticides consent on environmental grounds, in which case LL crops would be unlikely ever to be grown in the UK.  However it is by no means certain that Aventis would need consent for the pesticide change if they simply recommended that farmers use a GA/atrazine tank mix.  They would probably only need consent if they wished to market ATZ as a stand-alone product.

If I were being cynical I would say that Aventis told the govt that only GA would be used on these crops in the hope that more weeds would survive in the LL crops in the FSEs.  If so, and I have no idea that this is right, then they could argue that the GM crops were better for the environment!  They might then gain marketing consent for LL crops, only for the company then to change the pesticide recommendations to ATZ-type tank mixes.

I hope this is clear!

Roger Mainwood, press contact for CROW said " This news is absolute dynamite, and we praise English Nature for being so frank about what is going on with these trials. It is time DEFRA also came clean and admit that they have been well and truly hoodwinked by the GM companies. Although Aventis are saying that they have no intention of introducing their Liberty ATZ product in the UK, it is clear from the experience in the States that it will be inevitable within a very short time should GM crops be introduced commercially."

Members of CROW have now written to DEFRA to suggest that the original risk assessment for the GM crops being grown in the Essex trials was invalid because it stated that only glufosinate ammonium would be used, whereas it is now known that is not the case in most parts of the US where GM maize is grown.

CROW - Concerned Residents Of Wivenhoe
Press Contact Roger Mainwood
Notes to the Editor:
1) BBC 2 - Newsnight - Tuesday 25th June

This transcript was produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.

Weeds fight back

You may have worries about genetically modified foods. But the good thing is that at least they avoid the need to tip loads of poison on the land, right?


While Britain conducts so-called field trials, in America they're growing vast tonnages of genetically modified crops.

And, as our Science Editor has discovered, they've found that they still need to use industrial quantities of a herbicide which is so toxic it's banned in some countries. Furthermore, the weeds are now fighting back.

Local sporting hero, Michael Owen, has already done a full days work at the crop science research labs he runs in America's mid-west. Now at 10.00 at night he's playing softball, but he says, when it comes to competition, American farmers play hardball.

You look around here, and everybody is trying to do something, and it's frankly more fun to win than to lose.

The Professor and his team-mates wear their ages on their shirt backs with pride. He is wearing 51, but some on his side go up to 72. It's the never say die attitude that America is famous for. A will to win that's survived from the time of the pioneers.

It's a past celebrated at Iowa's Living History farm museum, a time when the pioneers conquered the land with the best technology available. Horse-drawn cultivators were the latest in weed control then, and there is no stopping progress.

Today American farmers have embraced GM crops with just the same pioneering spirit. Now there are hundreds of square miles of genetically modified maize or corn as they call it here, although the locals seem more concerned about the smell from neighbouring pig farms.

It's different in the UK. BSE and foot-and-mouth have created a public distrust of new technologies, especially in Agriculture. Here at the Dairy Research Centre Dr Phipps has been feeding GM crops to his cows. As Britain awaits the results of four years of field trials to study the real-life impact of genetically modified crops. It's decision time. To commercialise GM crops or not?

(Reading University)
By the end of September this crop of course will be seven foot tall.

Dr Phipps thinks we should go ahead. His department has research contracts  with Government, small local farming companies and large biotech firms such  as Aventis and Monsanto. He says GM crops will allow farmers to opt for more  benign herbicides, dropping more persistent chemicals like atrazine, which  is widely frowned upon. Several European countries have recently banned it.

Atrazine is relatively cheap, it's easy to use, but it does have very  definite problems in that there is the potential that it can be¿can go down  through the soil and possibly pollute watercourses.

The biotech companies made the GM future sound rosy.

"The latest revolution in farming techniques, the products of agricultural biotechnology".

You spray the crop and weeds with their herbicides, such as Roundup or Liberty. But only the weeds die because the crops have added genes which protect them.

The introduction of GM crops brings into use contact herbicides which are  less toxic, non-residual, and they do not pass down into ground water.

So the message in Britain from the enthusiasts is that a GM future will free up from dangerous herbicides.

It's coming up to midnight in Iowa, and the sporting Professor has now donned a number 35 shirt and a pair of skates. In the rink he is on the to the next event of the evening, but back at his day job he has found practical problems with GM, crops which mean if they do get the go ahead in Britain it could prove a hollow victory.

At 9.00 the next morning Dr Owen is back in the weed control lab. He is not anti-GM technology, conducting studies for many of the better- known companies. But he and his colleagues across America have found that in practice the Liberty GM technology from Aventis will not get rid of all weeds in maize without repeated doses.

The great myth of weed management and the star that growers want is to come  in early in the season, make one application of something, the silver  bullet, as it were, and have to do nothing else. What is interesting is that  because of the biology and adaptability of weeds, it's never going to work.  We are seeing two and possibly three applications necessary.

In fact, Aventis in America has quietly accepted that GM farmers aren't satisfied with Liberty alone, putting on sale a product called Liberty ATZ. This is a mix of a little bit of Liberty and a lot of atrazine, the residual chemical that's banned in most of Europe. Michael Owen says this combination has now displaced the original environmentally friendly option for Liberty corn growers.

The majority of the farmers see the advantage of having the atrazine included in the pre-packaged mix. I don't know the exact percentage, but I'd say it is easily more than 75%, probably closer to 90%.

We headed north out of Ames. Aventis was taken over by Bayer Crop Science earlier this month, and we knew a whistle stop tour by a head office team had reached Story City. Our requests for an interview were rejected, but we tracked down the visitors to an experimental plot outside town. Most of the group disappeared into their cars when we arrived, but local rep Dennis Campbell agreed to tell us why farmers here are opting for Liberty ATZ.

(Bayer Crop Science)
You can go with two passes of a totally benign herbicide, like Liberty. If you want to put in some residual and go out with a Liberty and a residual product like atrazine in the tank you can do that in one pass. So really it is up to the grower.

So given the choice it appears farmers are opting for the easy but more toxic mix of Liberty and atrazine together. But as biotech companies move their crops from experimental plot to the commercial markets of new countries like Britain, Professor Owen says he has found their message tends to be overly optimistic on weed control.

The industry, almost as a blanket statement, will guarantee their product performance to be perfect, and that's ecologically and environmentally impossible.

And he is working on a second practical problem, weeds that are becoming resistant to GM herbicides, such as Monsanto's Roundup.  PROFESSOR MIKE OWEN:
In this area we have the growth chambers, where we're trying to propagate
 some of the weeds that are resistant to herbicides.

Roundup crops use a herbicide called glyphosate which attacks a target site  in a plant. The GM crops have altered genes so the herbicide can't work. The  problem is the weeds are adopting a similar strategy.

Most of the weeds are like this and they die. That is what they are supposed to do. What we have found from grower complaints is that there are rare individuals that don't appear to respond to the herbicide, that don't appear to be sensitive. What we are trying to do here is to determine why they don't die. On this side, we have those that are resistant, and they said it couldn't happen, and already we are seeing very good evidence that indeed resistance to glyphosate can occur.

In the UK protest against the field trials came to a head with lord  Melchett's infamous trashing of the Aventis GM maize crop at Ling in  Norfolk.

The protesters have repeatedly accused the companies of deception, and in an inquiry over recent weeks into whether the maize should become the first GM crop to get a UK seed listing, Aventis repeated its claim for Liberty. They say it "¿has a significantly better environmental profile than atrazine", and, "¿is not as mobile in the soil as atrazine, and so will not have the same effects on watercourses as atrazine".

They don't say that in the US more and more farmers are opting for the  Aventis mix of its glufosinate-based Liberty weed killer plus atrazine. That  news comes as a shock to British GM campaigners, both for and against.

It is somewhat surprising, I think, because glufosinate and the Roundup ready mixtures can provide very good herbicide control in maize crops. However, there may be circumstances, slow growth in the early spring, or for ease of management farmers might still wish to use a little bit of atrazine in a mixture.

(Friends of the Earth)
It is a surprise, really. What we've heard in this country from Aventis is that the whole purpose of GM maize is to remove atrazine from the market. Historically, atrazine has been a problem for the rivers and the water industry, contaminating water, and it's also a highly toxic substance. It's a Red List substance for the EU. It is also now classified as an endocrine- disrupting chemical, which means it can interfere with the body's hormone systems at very low concentrations.

Aventis told us in a statement that they have no data on the proportion of Liberty farmers in America now using the mix, and that they never stated that "in all cases, all climates, all soil types, and with all weed pressures", Liberty would be the only solution. The company adds that comparing intensive farming in the US with the UK situation is not valid, and that they "..have no intention to sell Liberty ATZ in the UK".

The American experience could prove awkward for the Prime Minister. In his recent science matters speech at the Royal Society, Tony Blair urged the British public to drop its sceptical approach to developments such as GM crop technology.

We could choose to be a nation at ease with radical knowledge, not fearful of the future, a culture that values a pragmatic evidence-based approach to new opportunities.

Crop protesters who opted for direct action angered for more moderate Government advisers, like English Nature, who prefer a science-based approach, backing the farm-scale trials. The latest evidence has prompted a shift in their position.

(English Nature)
If we are having new information coming from the United States that raises questions about kinds of herbicides that might be used in future, then we need to look at that evidence, as well as the field-scale trials in this country, assess it all then make a decision based on the best possible grounds.

Where does that leave us with regards to the moratorium?

I think that it's going to take some time to make these decisions, so it  might be wise to extend that delay in commercialisation to enable the right  decisions to be made.

So far the American experience seems to have been largely ignored as British campaigners on both sides of the GM debate prefer to posture rather than heed its lessons.

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