British scientists have published a report indicating that GM crops may damage the environment. Biotech opponents said this confirmed their worst fears, while lobbyists stressed the positive side of such crops.
Greenpeace protesters: mobilizing against GM crops
British scientists on Thursday published the results of the world's largest-ever experiment into the environmental effects of genetically-modified (GM) crops. After nearly four years of testing, the scientists from the Royal Society concluded that GM rapeseed and sugar beet were more harmful to local wildlife than conventionally-grown plants.
But they also found that fields grown with GM maize fared better. Since 1998, researchers backed by the government's Scientific Steering Committee had been evaluating the impact of GM herbicides on the local environment and comparing the results with studies on nearby fields where conventional weed killers were used on non-GM varieties.
Results may differ from case-to-case
The results revealed significant differences in the effect on biodiversity when managing GM crops as compared to conventional varieties, project coordinator Les Firbank said. "The study emphasizes the importance of the weeds growing among crop plants in sustaining natural communities within, and adjacent to, farmers' fields," he explained.
But, he pointed out, the results were only applicable to the three crops studied, and only under the regimes of herbicide usage which were employed. "Each new application of GM crop technology must be looked at on a case-by-case basis, using a rational evidence-based approach," Firbank said.
The trial findings were laid out over eight lengthy scientific papers. They will serve as a guideline for helping the UK government decide whether or not to allow farmers to grow GM crops commercially.
Europeans want no part of Frankenstein food
More than three-quarters of German consumers are opposed to GM foods, surveys have shown. This figure is also representative of public sentiment in most other European countries, including France, Belgium, Italy, Spain and Britain.
The Royal Society report has spurred fresh demands for the UK government to keep so-called "Frankenstein" foods away from already skeptical British shoppers. "For years, the GM corporations have been claiming that their crops would reduce weed killer use and benefit wildlife. Now we know how wrong they were. [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair should close the door on GM for good," environmental group Greenpeace said in a statement.
The findings, however, give London a fresh headache over the issue since the report didn't say whether GM crops should get the green light. Even though weed density and wildlife numbers tended to be lower than the conventional equivalent in fields of GM rapeseed and sugar beet, the results showed that in fields of herbicide-resistant GM maize, there were more weeds and insects than in fields sown with conventional plants.
Ulrike Brendel, GM technology expert at Greenpeace, said European governments cannot ignore the study results. "Here in Europe, we still have the chance to keep this ghost contained," she said.
There are no GM crops in the ground in the UK at present and no imminent plantings. Led by the United States, GM crops are now grown in more than 16 countries outside Europe.
Feeding the world with GM crops
The biotech lobby group, Agricultural Biotechnology Council (ABC), said the findings showed GM crops had a positive contribution to make. "These results confirm what the industry has long argued. The flexibility of GM crops allows them to be grown in a way that benefits the environment," ABC chairman Paul Rylott said.
The biotech industry group, the Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural crops (SCIMAC) added that the differences between the crops studied was governed above all by the crop type, herbicides and weed control practices involved, not by the use of genetic modification.
GM food important for development policies
The debate on GM food is also reflected in development policies. The World Food Summit has set the goal of cutting by half the number of the world's chronically hungry and under-nourished people by 2015. Yet progress has been slow in these efforts, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said in view of World Food Day on Thursday.
This is where GM food enter the picture. Many supporters say precisely these types of crops can be adapted to grow and flourish in the often difficult environment of many developing nations.
The chairman of Germany's Christian Democrat parliamentary working group on consumer protection and nutrition, Peter Harry Carstensen, said he welcomed all international efforts to ensure adequate supplies of food for the world. "It should be obvious to those responsible that gene technology can be the decisive factor in coping with that challenge," he said.
But European governments remain unlikely to take the risk.