- Two of the three GM crops grown experimentally in Britain,
oil seed rape and sugar beet, appear more harmful to the environment than
conventional crops and should not be grown in the UK, scientists are expected
to tell the government next week.
- The Guardian has learned that the scientists will conclude
that growing these crops is damaging to plant and insect life.
- The judgment will be a serious setback to the GM lobby
in the UK and Europe, reopening the acrimonious debate about GM food.
- The third crop, GM maize, allows the survival of more
weeds and insects and might be recommended for approval, though some scientists
still have reservations.
- The results of the three years of field scale trials
- the largest scientific experiment of its type on GM crops undertaken
anywhere in the world - will be published next Friday by the august Philosophical
Transactions of the Royal Society. The results have been a closely guarded
secret for months, and will be studied by scientists, farmers, food companies
and governments across the world.
- The study will include eight peer-reviewed papers about
the effect of growing GM crops and accompanying herbicides on the plants
and animals living in the fields around. The papers compare the GM fields
with conventional crops grown in adjacent fields.
- The overwhelming public hostility in the UK to GM crops
has not been shared by scientists or the government but the results of
the field scale trials are expected to be a jolt to the enthusiasts. The
Royal Society refused to publish a ninth paper produced by the scientific
- The Society's explanation was that the ninth paper was
not a scientific document but a summary of findings and in effect a recommendation
to the advisory committee on releases to the environment - the expert quango.
The scientists involved will now themselves publish this summary at the
same time as the other eight papers, concluding that two of the three crops
should not be grown.
- The trials were set up four years ago by the former environment
minister, Michael Meacher, urged on by English Nature, the government's
watchdog on the natural world, which feared that the UK's already declining
farmland species might be further damaged by the introduction of GM crops.
- A three-year moratorium on the commercial introduction
of crops was negotiated with the GM companies Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer
Bioscience while the experimental field trials took place. Despite repeated
attacks by anti-GM protesters that destroyed many of the fields, the scientists
decided they had enough results to be scientifically valid. Experts not
involved in the trials had not expected definitive results even though
hundreds of fields were used.
- The numbers of weed species and various types of spiders,
ground beetles, butterflies, moths and bees in fields of GM crops and the
adjacent conventional crop fields were counted to see if they showed marked
differences. All were treated with herbicides to kill weeds but the GM
crops were modified to survive special types made by Monsanto and Bayer.
- The papers accepted for publication by the Royal Society
show that in GM sugar beet and oil seed rape the weeds and insects were
significantly less numerous. Spraying with the Monsanto herbicide glyphosate
had taken a heavy toll in the beet fields and the Bayer product glufosinate
ammonium had wiped out many species in the rape fields.
- For maize the reverse appears to be the case. The reason
seems to be that maize fields are normally sprayed with atrazine, which
kills weeds as they germinate, and is an even more savage killer than the
Bayer product. But the result may be controversial because maize is particularly
sensitive to competition from weeds and yields may be down. Farmers in
America found glufosinate ammonium was not enough to kill competitive weeds
and used a second herbicide, further damaging biodiversity.
- The political fall out from the trial results is potentially
enormous. It would give the government every excuse to refuse permission
outright for two of the three crops on environmental grounds. One of the
two legally watertight reasons for such a refusal is the environment, the
other is health. Almost all of northern Europe, with similar farming conditions,
would be expected to follow any British ban.
- GM maize, grown in the UK as a fodder crop, may be given
the green light under strict guidelines, as a concession to the GM companies
and the US where a trade war looms. The US is threatening to take the EU
to the World Trade Organisation if the moratorium on GM crops is continued.
- The government has other minefields to negotiate before
GM crops can be introduced. The agriculture and environment biotechnology
commission is still wrestling with the vexed question of distances required
between GM and conventional crops to avoid cross contamination and compensation
schemes for injured farmers if all goes wrong.
- If contamination above 0.9% occurs in conventional crops
it will have to be declared and will be virtually unsaleable to food companies
and all UK supermarkets. For organic farmers the threshold is even lower
- The majority of the commission members believe that the
biotech industry should set up a fund with a levy on farmers growing GM
crops to compensate any conventional farmers whose crops lose value because
of cross-contamination. The biotech industry is wholly opposed to this.
- The commission is also set to recommend a second statutory
fund paid for by the government to compensate farmers who lose organic
status for the same reason.
- New legislation would be required to set up the schemes
and enforce the separation distances between crops. The legally enforceable
separation distances could be made larger or smaller in the future in the
light of experience.
- The commission meets again in December by which time
a draft of proposals will be circulated.
- Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited