1.Happy ending to GM maize farce
2.Bogus Comparison in GM Maize Trial
1.A happy ending to GM maize farce
Science in Society Issue 22, Summer 2004
Subscriptions +44 (0)20 7383 3376 or online at www.i-sis.org.uk/subscribe
Just weeks after the UK government approved Bayer's GM maize, tbe corporation withdrew its application, complaining that the conditions imposed were too stringent. Claire Robinson exposes the PR campaign that was integral to the approval of what would have been the UK's first GM crop, and pays tribute to the continuing grassroots opposition to GM crops.
In what has been described as a "massive blow to the GM lobby", gene giant Bayer withdrew its GM maize from commercialisation just weeks after the Blair government said it intended to give it the first go-ahead for a GM crop in the UK. Bayer announced that its GM maize variety Chardon LL had been left "economically non-viable" because of conditions environment secretary Margaret Beckett imposed when she gave it limited approval.
Bayer's decision to withdraw the crop from the UK and other European markets means GM crops are unlikely to be grown in the UK until at least 2008.
However, organics lobby the Soil Association accused Bayer of being deceitful when it put the whole blame for its withdrawal of GM maize on the UK government's regulatory hurdles. Policy director Peter Melchett said Bayer has simply been caught out by its own inaccurate hype.
Biotech companies have always claimed that GM crops need less chemical sprays. In the three-year farm scale trials, Bayer's GM maize was grown using one weed-killing spray. But Soil Association research in the US and Canada had already shown that GM maize grown commercially needed at least two weedkillers. Indeed, biotech companies in America are even selling branded mixtures of weed killing sprays to farmers growing their GM crops, so they can hardly deny that several sprays are often needed.
"Unfortunately for Bayer, the British Government took them at their word, and said that their GM maize could only be grown using one weedkiller.
Based on experience in North America, Bayer knows that won't work in practice," Melchett said. "In these circumstances, it's really not surprising that Bayer have withdrawn the GM maize, effectively ending the prospect of any GM crops being grown in the UK for the foreseeable future."
Bayer shares slipped 1.9 percent after the news was announced.
The campaigners' victory was the more extraordinary because it represented a complete reversal of fortune for the biotech industry, which appeared to have triumphed when the UK government gave the go-ahead for commercial growing of GM maize on 9 March.
Government go-ahead despite parliamentary opposition
The UK government gave its go-ahead to GM maize without a debate in Parliament, in the teeth of overwhelming public opposition and of a critical report from the House of Commons' all-party Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) saying such a move was unjustified.
The members of the EAC unanimously agreed that the GM maize trials were "unsatisfactory, indeed invalid." They urged the government to carry out further tests on GM maize, by comparing it to less intensive forms of farming like organic agriculture (a comparison the industry refused to contemplate from the start of the FSE programme). But the government had made its decision to approve the commercial growing of GM maize the day before the EAC announced its opposition.
The EAC's report pointed out that the scope of the farm scale evaluations (FSEs) was very narrow and hence the results could not be regarded as adequate grounds for a decision in favour of commercialisation. Furthermore, the issue of liability should be settled before any GM crops are allowed to be commercially grown in the UK. The government should not permit commercial planting of GM maize until that crop was thoroughly re-trialled against a non-GM equivalent grown without the use of atrazine, the herbicide used on the non-GM crop in the FSEs, which has now been banned because it is so toxic. The EAC report also said problems with GM crops evident in North America have not been taken seriously enough.
In spite of all these valid objections, environment minister Elliott Morley immediately rejected the panel's calls for more safety testing of GM crops.
Bogus comparison a political figleaf
In what was clearly a carefully contrived operation to upstage the EAC report on the day of its publication, a paper was rushed online to the journal Nature claiming to show that even with the ban on atrazine, the GM maize would still be marginally better for wildlife. This statistical miracle was performed by a group led by Prof Joe Perry of Rothamsted Research Station, also a member of Scientists for Labour and a supporter of prime minister Tony Blair.
Because only four fields had not been sprayed with atrazine-type chemicals (triazines), the paper drew largely on data from fields which had been sprayed with the banned chemical in order to make predictions about what would happen in fields where such a chemical would not be used! (See "Bogus comparison in GM maize trial", this series).
The chairman of the EAC dismissed the paper as "neither robust nor particularly credible science", while the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said in a letter to The Times, "A recent paper published in Nature confirms that there are too few data to provide a clear answer on GM maize... the jury is still out".
Two of the scientists who provided this political figleaf have research contracts with Bayer. The other authors claim to have "no competing financial interests" but, in reality, almost all work for public institutes with financial ties to the industry.
How the BMA report was fixed
One striking headline after the announcement of the GM maize commercialisation ran: "Doctors 100% behind GM decision". The article reported, "In an apparent U-turn over its policy to GM foods, the British Medical Association [BMA] said there was no reason not to go ahead with commercial planting of GM maize".
Sir David Carter, chairman of the BMA's Board of Science, had reportedly said it was necessary to "move away from the hysteria that has so often been associated with GM foods". Asked if he would be 100% behind a decision to allow GM maize, Sir David said: "I would say so."
The timing of the press conference and Sir David's remarks could not have been more helpful to the government. Yet Sir David's remarks were not only out of line with the BMA's much more cautiously worded report and press release, which called for more extensive testing of GM products (see "Doctors want more research into GM health impacts", this issue), they were a million miles away from what the BMA last said on the issue. In November 2002, in its submission on GM crop trials to the Scottish Parliament's health committee, the BMA said that "insufficient care" had been taken over public health and that the grounds for concern were "serious enough" to justify an immediate end to GM trials.
But one national newspaper questioned the BMA's apparent turnaround. The Daily Mail quickly reported that Sir David, who personally initiated the review of the BMA's positioh on GM, is part of a controversial pro-GM lobby group. This is Sense About Science (chairman: Lord Taverne) whose staff are part of the far-right 'LM' network which campaigns against restrictions on GM crops and reproductive cloning. Sir David sits on the lobby group's advisory council along with GM proponents like Sir Peter Lachmann (alleged in the Guardian newspaper to have threatened the editor of The Lancet over the publication of Dr Arpad Pusztai's paper that found ill effects in GM-fed rats), Derek Burke, Vivian Moses (part of the industry-funded lobby group CropGen), Roger Turner (chairman of the GM industry body SCIMAC), Michael Wilson (consultant for Lord Sainsbury's biotech investment firm Diatech), and Phil Dale (of the part-industry-funded John Innes Centre).
Victory for democracy
This shameless series of spins orchestrated by a government in league with industry makes clear that far from putting "regulatory hurdles" in the way of GM commercialisation as Bayer claims, the government was hell-bent on smoothing the path to a biotech future.
But finally, neither government nor industry was able to withstand the strength of public opposition. Dr Brian John of the Welsh campaign group GM Free Cymru said: "The real reason for the Bayer climb-down is that grassroots campaigners have attacked the science, the liability issue, the herbicide issue, the practicalities of coexistence, and the corruption of the whole GM enterprise with persistence and sophistication. No company can afford to operate in a climate of such unremitting hostility for too long."
One of the first UK campaigners, Jim Thomas of ETC Group, formerly of Greenpeace, stressed the magnitude of the victory, which stretches far beyond Bayer's decision: "At the end of 1996 we were reckoned to be barely a year away from widespread cultivation of GM crops all across the UK countryside... Some of the world's most powerful companies and one of the world's most powerful governments had remained steadfastly determined to get GM crops grown commercially in the UK throughout the intervening eight years.
"It is raw, direct popular opposition that has nonetheless removed GM from all human foods sold in the UK; removed GM from most poultry and pig feed; reduced the number of GM field trials from over 300 locations per year to currently zero..."
Campaigners were touched to receive a special message of thanks from a Native American seed guardian, Lilia Firefly, whose words remind us that while we have claimed a great national victory, the international struggle against GM continues: "As a Tawo Seed Carrier of sacred plants, please accept my humble and grateful thank you for all your personal sacrifices. To quote the Mahatma, 'this world has enough for everyone's need but not enough for one man's greed.' Here in Turtle Island [Native American term for North America] we continue to resist being the guinea pigs of Monsanto and their ilk. We need your prayers."
Claire is an editor with GM Watch
Bogus Comparison in GM Maize Trial
[To see the astonishing photos taken by campaigner Jean Saunders of a GM maize trial showing the appalling agronomic performance (stunted growth and weediness) of the GM crop compared with non-GM maize, you can click on the link at the online version of the following article at http://www.i-sis.org.uk/BogusComparison.php
- or get the hard copy mag: Science in Society Issue 22, Summer 2004 Subscriptions +44 (0)20 7383 3376 or online at www.i-sis.org.uk/subscribe]
The research paper claiming that GM maize is better for the environment than non-GM even if atrazine is not used is highly misleading. Prof. Peter Saunders and Dr. Mae-Wan Ho report
Caught between fierce opposition from the public and heavy pressure from the biotech industry, the UK government agreed in 2000 to fund the 'Farm Scale Evaluations' (FSEs) at a cost of £3 million to the taxpayer. Three genetically modified herbicide tolerant (GMHT) crops - maize, oilseed rape and sugar beet - would be grown side by side with conventionally managed counterparts, so they could be compared.
The FSEs were severely criticised for being rigged in favour of the industry right from the start. First of all, organically managed crops were not included in the evaluations, nor were the crops grown under other low-input, integrated management regimes.
The FSEs were not intended to address safety issues, as these were assumed to have been satisfactorily resolved. There would be no evaluations on the risks of gene-flow, nor threats to a whole range of wildlife, livestock or human beings, nor effects on the soil ecosystem. There would be no data collected on yields or other important agronomic indicators.
The FSEs would estimate the effects on biodiversity using only a few indicator species of weeds and insects; and if these proved to be the same, or "substantially equivalent", then the GM crops would be given the go-ahead.
It is rather like giving a MOT certificate to a car just by checking that the tyres are OK.
But to everyone's surprise, when the results were published, it turned out that GM oilseed rape and sugar beet had a more deleterious effect on biodiversity than conventionally managed crops. GM maize, however, appeared to do better than the conventional maize crop. The Government therefore announced that it would permit GM maize to be grown commercially but not the other two.
This was a very convenient result. It allowed the Government to portray itself as being very cautious and responsive to scientific evidence and, at the same time, let the GM lobby go ahead with commercial growing of GM crops. What is at stake is the principle that GM crops can be grown commercially in the UK, and it matters little whether it is maize, oilseed rape or sugar beet. Once one GM variety has been agreed, then more will follow, if for no other reason than that pollen from GM variety will pollute the non-GM varieties, as is already happening in North America and elsewhere.
Unfortunately, there was a snag. Almost all the conventional GM maize had been treated with atrazine or other triazine herbicides, and just as the results were announced, the EU banned these herbicides on environmental grounds. This meant that the maize trial results were no longer valid.
Then, just before the environment secretary Margaret Beckett was due to give the official go-ahead for the GM maize, a paper that claimed to rescue the Government's case was rushed online in the high prestige journal Nature. It bore the confident title: "Ban on triazine herbicides likely to reduce but not negate relative benefits of GMHT maize cropping." The eleven authors of this paper come from a whole collection of Government-funded Institutes: Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Lancaster, Cumbria, Broom's Barn Research Station in Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire and Scottish Crop Research Institute in Dundee, Scotland.
The claim is that, according to further statistical analysis, the ban on triazine herbicides, although it might reduce the benefits of GM maize, is unlikely to cancel them out altogether. This would be a very significant result, if only it were true.
From the data presented in the paper, there were indeed a few fields - four of them to be exact - where non-triazine herbicides were used. Did the researchers compare those to the GM maize fields in order to arrive at their conclusion? No. Possibly because there was no significant difference between the two groups, and in any case, the number of plots was too few to support the claim that the GM maize would be better from the standpoint of biodiversity.
So what did they do instead? The authors noted that on 16 occasions, triazine herbicides had been applied before the maize emerged. On 24 occasions, it had been applied post-emergence only, as had the non-triazine herbicides. They decided to leave out the data from the plots on which triazine was applied pre-emergence, which clearly showed a greater deleterious effect on biodiversity than any other treatment.
The GM maize was thus compared with data from the 24 plots on which the now banned triazine herbicides had been used post-emergence plus the 4 on which non-triazine herbicides were used. There was now a significant difference, which allowed the lead researcher, Perry, to say on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme that about one-third of the benefits of GM maize would remain after triazines are no longer used.
But this is a highly misleading claim, because 24 out of the 28 plots compared with the GM maize had in fact been sprayed with the banned triazines.
They write in the paper, "If this pooled category of herbicide regimes is indeed representative of weed control in post-triazine conventional crops, and if the weed management in GMHT maize remains the same as observed with the FSE, then final weed numbers would still be larger in GMHT than in conventional maize." There is nothing that would justify the first half of this statement (in fact the authors themselves point out that the non-triazine herbicides had a consistently smaller effect on biodiversity than triazines) and so the claim in the title of the paper is simply bogus.
In reply to criticisms from the House of Commons Environment Audit Committee reported in the Times newspaper, Les Firbank, one of the authors of the Nature paper and also the coordinator of the FSEs, wrote,
"I find it astonishing that the chairman of the committee should announce that the work is "neither robust nor particularly credible science" within a few hours of its publication in Nature, the most highly acclaimed scientific journal in the world."
We find it astonishing that the paper got past the referees of any respectable journal, let alone "Nature, the most highly acclaimed scientific journal in the world".
But that's not the whole the story. The reason yield is not measured is because, if it were, it would very likely reveal a highly significant difference between the GM maize and non-GM maize fields.
Jean Saunders, a citizen opposing the planting of GM crops, has taken the trouble of photographing her local GM maize trial (see the powerpoint presentation here), documenting the severe stunting of the GM maize crop, delayed flowering, and much smaller and fewer cobs compared with the conventional non-GM maize. This finding is surely a lot more relevant to the farmer than data that the scientists have collected and the spin that they have put on the data to allow commercial approval to go ahead.
Perry JN, Firbank LG, Champion GT, et al. Ban on triazine herbicides likely to reduce but not negate relative benefits of GMHT maize cropping. Nature 2004 |doi:10.1038/nature02374|www.nature.com/nature
Letter to the Editor from Les Firbank, Times on line http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,8122-1034024,00.html
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