Gene Crops Could Spell
Extinction For Birds
By Rory Carroll
A vision of genetically modified crops unleashing invasive species on the plant and animal kingdoms was given in a government report yesterday.
Domino effects could sweep through the food chain and threaten the survival of Britain's wildlife unless GM crops were properly regulated, the advisory committee on releases to the environment said. The technology could accelerate the decline in bird populations triggered 30 years ago by the introduction of specialised land use, hedgerow removal, pesticides and fertilizers.
The Government's commitment to protect farmland wildlife obliged it to take these declines into account when vetting GM crop applications, said the report. "The introduction of GM crops in the UK should not prejudice the objectives of enhancing biodiversity."
It identified the potentially adverse effects of releasing such crops into the environment:
* The persistence, invasiveness and competitiveness of new species could change the population dynamics of surrounding areas by overwhelming native plants and reducing the animal species that depend on them for survival.
* Wind or insects could transfer inserted genetic material to native plants, turning them into hybrids with selective advantages over other native plants, which may then suffer.
* Soil decomposition may be affected by changed nitrogen and carbon recycling processes.
* The law of unintended effect may result if GM plants unexpectedly turn out to be unpalatable to herbivores, a trait which could be transferred to native species.
The report said these effects could also occur as a result of conventional plant breeding programmes, but the risk of transferring genetic material between unrelated organisms was unique to GM technology. On Wednesday, Monsanto, one of the world's largest producers of GM foods, was fined £17,000 by magistrates in Lincolnshire for failing to stop an altered crop from escaping into the environment.
The report said the introduction of novel pest and disease resistant genes could reduce the need for crop rotations, which are important in maintaining a variety of wildlife species. "On the other hand, the use of GM crops could reduce the need for tillage, thus helping to conserve soil moisture levels, and a range of organisms dependent on this."
Wildlife could also benefit if the new crops reduced chemical usage, said the report, which complained that there were not enough experimental trials to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages.
Veiled criticism was levelled at the Government for failing to devise a strategic approach to regulation and reacting to developments on a first-come-first-served basis.
The report identified the main types of GM crops in Britain as oilseed rape, sugar beet, fodder beet, maize and potatoes. They are being developed to tolerate herbicides and resist pests and diseases.
Modifications have also been made to starch content in potatoes and oil quality in oilseed rape. Male sterility and fertility restoration have also been introduced to oilseed rape for breeding purposes.