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Transgenic Crops Take Another Knock

By Jim Giles
March 21, 2005

Shift in weed species hits bees and butterflies.

Commercial use of some genetically modified crops could alter the balance of weed species that thrive on British farmland. Such a shift could harm bees and butterflies, warn researchers.

Butterfly numbers were cut by up to two-thirds and bee populations by half in fields of transgenic winter oilseed rape (canola), according to the final results of a three-year study commissioned by the UK government.

Researchers behind the £6-million (US$11-million) study say that the project's weed-control system is to blame. The crops are engineered to resist a particular herbicide, which hits broad-leafed weeds harder than grassy varieties. Bees and butterflies suffer because they prefer the former type of weed.

The scientists add that this would have a knock-on effect on animals higher up the food chain. "If this crop were commercialized we'd be concerned about the implications for birds such as sparrows and bullfinches," says David Gibbons, a conservationist from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and a member of the committee that oversaw the experiment.

Crop fans

Supporters of transgenic crops stress that most insect species were not affected by the rape's herbicide and say the overall impact on biodiversity is minimal. "As with all weed-management systems, some weed and insect species will be positively affected while others may be negatively affected, but the vast majority are unaffected," says Tony Combes, deputy chairman of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, a London-based lobbying group.

Bayer CropScience, headquartered in Monheim, Germany, already markets the winter oilseed rape used in the trial in the United States and Canada. Although the crop is grown widely in the two countries, Bayer says it has no intention of applying for a licence to sell it in Europe.

But Bayer officials point out that the biggest difference in butterfly and bee numbers is seen in July, when the crop is just about to be harvested and there is little green material. "There's nothing in the field at that point for bees and butterflies," says spokesman Julian Little. "You wouldn't get very many there anyway."

The results will, however, be felt as a further blow to advocates of transgenic crops. In 2003, two of the three other transgenic varieties covered by the study, spring oilseed rape and beet, were shown to harm biodiversity by reducing overall levels of weeds.

Impact factor

Release of the results marks the end of what has been the largest ever study into the ecological impact of transgenic crops. More than 150 people worked on the experiment, which involved counting a million weeds and 2 million insects at sites across Britain. The report is published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society.

Although none of the crops tested is likely to be licensed in Europe, researchers behind the study say that the data will inform agricultural policy for years to come. They point out that the ecological impacts of previous changes in farming practice, such as increasing herbicide use, were not properly investigated at the start.

"Now we have a rational and scientific basis for managing change," says Chris Pollock, director of research at the Institute for Grassland and Environmental Research in Aberystwyth, UK, and chairman of the study committee. "We've demonstrated in enormous detail just how tight the association is between agriculture and the environment."


Biggest Study of GMO Finds Impact on Birds, Bees

By David Cullen
March 21, 2005

LONDON (Reuters) - The world's biggest study to date on the impact of genetically modified (GMO) crops on wildlife found birds and bees are more likely to thrive in fields of natural rapeseed than GMO seed, scientists said.

But scientists behind the British study were keen to stress the differences between the two arose not because the crop was genetically engineered but because of the way pesticides were applied.

"The study demonstrates the important of the effects of herbicide management on wildlife in fields and adjacent areas," researcher David Bohan said.

Green groups, however, were aghast.

"These results are yet another major blow to the biotech industry. Growing GM winter oilseed rape would have a negative impact on farmland wildlife," Friends of the Earth campaigner Clare Oxborrow said.

The trial was the last in a four-part 5.5 million-pound ($9.5 million) test of controversial technology -- the largest experiment of its kind in the world.

Scientists said that when compared with conventional winter-sown rapeseed, GMO herbicide-resistant plants kept the same number of weeds overall, having more grass weeds but fewer broad-leaved weeds.

Flowers of broad-leaved weeds provide food for insects, while their seeds are an important food source for other wildlife.

Researchers said that while fields planted with the biotech version were found to have fewer butterflies and bees, differences arose not because the crop was genetically-changed but because of the way they were sprayed.

In October 2003, the same government trials found that GMO sugar beet spraying was significantly more damaging to the environment than the management of conventional varieties.

They also concluded that gene-spliced spring-sown rapeseed may also have a negative impact on wildlife, while GMO feed maize did not.

GMO Crops Are Better

The biotech lobby insist the crops are safe.

"GM crops offer a better, more flexible weed management option for farmers and, as the results today indicate, the difference between the impact of growing GM and non-GM crops on biodiversity is minimal," Tony Combes, deputy chairman of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, which represents biotech firms like Monsanto and Syngenta .

Despite optimism from proponents of the technology, GMO crops seem a long way off in Britain.

Last year, the only firm to win approval to grow a GMO crop in Britain -- Germany's Bayer CropScience -- abandoned field testing of GMO crops in Britain. It also withdrew any outstanding applications awaiting government approval to sell biotech seeds.

As a result, no new GMO seeds are awaiting approval in Britain, whereas in the mid-1990s more than 50 different engineered seeds were.


The End for GM Crops: Final British Trial Confirms Threat to Wildlife

by Steve Connor, Michael McCarthy and Colin Brown
the Independent/UK
March 22, 2005

Yet another nail was hammered into the coffin of the GM food industry in Britain yesterday when the final trial of a four-year series of experiments found, once more, that genetically modified crops can be harmful to wildlife.

The study was the fourth in a series that has, in effect, sealed the fate of GM in the UK - at least in the foreseeable future. They showed the ultra-powerful weedkillers that the crops are engineered to tolerate would bring about further damage to a countryside already devastated by intensive farming.

Only one of the four farm-scale trials, which have gone on for nearly five years, showed that growing GM crops might be less harmful to birds, flowers and insects than the non-GM equivalent - and even that was attacked as flawed, because the weedkiller the particular conventional crop required was so destructive it was about to be banned by the EU.

Even so, a year ago the Government gave a licence for that crop - a maize known as Chardon LL, created by the German chemical group Bayer - to be grown in Britain, thus officially opening the way for the GM era in Britain, to loud protests from environmentalists.

However, only three weeks later Bayer withdrew its application, suggesting the regulatory climate would be too inhibiting. That followed the withdrawal from Europe of the world leader in GM crops, the American biotech giant Monsanto, which also seemed to have tired of the struggle.

Since then, the GM industry in Britain has withered on the vine, despite the fact that some members of the Government, and Tony Blair in particular, were privately great supporters of it from the outset. Official policy is portrayed as being neutral and based simply on scientific advice.

But yesterday's results make it even less likely that other big agribusiness firms will want to come forward and go through the extensive testing process - and public opposition - that bringing a GM crop to market in Britain would involve.

Last night, the Conservatives spotted a political opportunity from the latest test results and, this morning, the shadow Environment Secretary, Tim Yeo, will pledge to prevent any commercial planting of GM crops until science showed it would be safe for people and the environment, and there was a liability regime in place to deal with any cross-contamination.

Observers saw that as yet another Tory attempt to win over Middle England voters in the pre-election campaign.

The fourth and final mass experiment involving GM crops has found that they caused significant harm to wild flowers, butterflies, bees and probably songbirds. Results of the farm-scale trial of winter-sown oilseed rape raised further doubts about whether GM crops can ever be grown in Britain without causing further damage to the nation's wildlife.

Although the experiment did not look directly at the catastrophic demise of farmland birds over the past 50 years, ornithologists said the results suggested that growing GM oilseed rape would almost certainly exacerbate the problem.

David Gibbons, the head of conservation at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, said the herbicides used to spray GM rape killed broad-leaved wild flowers such as chickweed and fat hen which are important to the diet of songbirds such as skylarks, tree sparrows and bullfinches.

"For most farmland birds, broad-leaved weeds are a particularly important part of their diet. There are a few birds that will take grass seeds but, by and large, it would be hard to see how the loss of broad-leaved weeds would be beneficial to them," Dr Gibbons said. "Broad-leaved weeds are particularly important to farmland birds and the widespread cultivation of this crop, in this way, would damage hopes of reversing their decline."

The trial of winter oilseed rape involved planting conventional and GM forms of the crop in adjacent plots at 65 sites across Britain. Scientists then carefully monitored wild flowers, grasses, seeds, bees, butterflies and other invertebrates. Over the course of the three-year experiment, the scientists counted a million weeds, two million insects and made 7,000 field trips. Although they found similar overall numbers of weeds in the two types of crop, broad-leaved weeds such as chickweed were far fewer in the GM plots. The scientists counted fewer bees and butterflies in the GM plots compared to plots of conventional oilseed rape.

Les Firbank, of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Lancaster, who led the study, said that there was about one-third fewer seeds from broad-leaved flowers in the GM plots compared to fields with conventional oilseed rape.

"These differences were still present two years after the crop had been sown ... So we've got a significant biological difference that is carrying on from season to season," he said.

GM oilseed rape is genetically designed to be resistant to a weedkiller that would kill the non-GM crop. It means that farmers are free to use broader-spectrum herbicides.

The three previous farm-scale trials into crops investigated spring-sown oilseed rape, maize and beet. These showed that growing GM rape and GM beet did more harm to wildlife than their conventional counterparts.

"All of the evidence that we've got from the farm-scale evaluations points out that differences between the treatments are due to the herbicides. It's the nature of the chemicals and the timing at which the farming is done," Dr Firbank said.

Christopher Pollock, chairman of the scientific steering committee that oversaw the farm-scale trials, said: "What's good for the farmer is not always good for the natural populations of weeds, insects, birds and butterflies that share that space."

Farm-scale trials of GM crops are unique to Britain and represent the first time that scientists have evaluated the environmental impact of a new farming practice before it has been introduced, Professor Pollock said. Results of the latest trial are published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The Four Tests

Test 1: Spring-sown oilseed rape, October 2003
Nationwide tests found that biotech oilseed rape sown in the spring could be more harmful to many groups of wildlife than their conventional equivalent. There were fewer butterflies among modified crops, due to there being less weeds. Verdict: GM fails.
Test 2: Sugar beet, October 2003
The GM crop was found to be potentially more harmful to its environment than crops that were unmodified. Bees and butterflies were recorded more frequently around conventional crops, due to greater numbers of weeds. Verdict: GM fails.
Test 3: Maize, October 2003
The production of biotech maize was shown to be kinder to other plants and animals compared to conventional crops. More weeds grew around the biotech maize crops, attracting more butterflies, bees and weed seeds. Verdict: GM passes, but critics brand study as flawed.
Test 4: Winter-sown oilseed rape, March 2005
Tests showed that fields sown with the biotech crop had fewer broad-leaved weeds growing in them. This impacted on the numbers of bees and butterflies, which feed on such weeds. Verdict: GM fails.

Half A Century Of Debate

  • 1953: James Watson and Francis Crick unravel double-helix form of DNA, making biotechnology a possibility.
  • 1983: Kary Mullis, a scientist and surfer from California, discovers the polymerase chain-reaction which allows tiny pieces of DNA to be replicated rapidly. Shortly after, US patents to produce GM plants are awarded to companies. US Environment Protection Agency approves release of first GM crop: virus-resistant tobacco.
  • 1987: Potato becomes first GM plant introduced to UK.
  • 1994: Flavr Savr tomato is approved by US Food and Drug Administration, paving way for more GM products.
  • 1997: Public find Monsanto GM soya is used, unlabelled, in processed UK food.
  • June 1998:The Prince of Wales stokes debate by saying he will neither eat GM produce nor serve it to his family or friends.
  • July 1998: English Nature, the Government's wildlife advisory body, calls for a moratorium on planting of GM crops while trials are conducted into effects on wildlife of their weedkillers.
  • February 1999:Michael Meacher, the environment minister, persuades GM companies to agree to a moratorium until farm-scale weedkiller trials are done.
  • Spring 2000: Farm-scale trials of GM crops begin.
  • October 2003: Preliminary results find that two of three GM crops are believed to damage the environment.
  • March 2004:Cabinet members approve qualified planting of first UK GM crop.

Pharmaceutical Rice In Missouri Threatens Food Supply

Bill Freese, Friends of the Earth, 573-447-1588
Ellen Treimel, Missouri Public Interest Research Group, 314-454-9560
Craig Culp, Center for Food Safety, 202-547-9359 or 301-509-0925
March 17, 2005

Federal and State Officials Urged to Stop Proposed Field Trials to Protect Farmers, Consumers and the Missouri Rice & Food Industries

COLUMBIA, Mo./WASHINGTON — Field trials of genetically engineered, pharmaceutical-producing rice would result in contamination of the food supply and should not be allowed to proceed in Missouri, consumer and environmental groups told federal and state authorities today. Pending state and federal approval, up to 204.5 acres of pharmaceutical rice could be grown this year in rice-growing southeast Missouri, the largest planting of a pharmaceutical crop yet attempted anywhere in the world. The pharmaceutical rice was developed by Ventria Bioscience.

“Missouri farmers and consumers should not have to worry about drugs contaminating their crops and food,” said Bill Freese, research analyst with Friends of the Earth and an expert on biopharming, “but that’s just what will happen if Ventria is allowed to start growing its pharmaceutical rice in the state. We urge federal and Missouri state authorities to just say no to this foolish experimentation with drug-producing rice.”

Biopharming is an experimental technique in which crops like rice, barley and tobacco are genetically engineered with human or animal genes to become biofactories for the production of experimental pharmaceuticals. Yet not a single plant-made pharmaceutical has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

“We must not allow Missouri to become a testing ground for an unproven technology that threatens farmers, consumers and the state’s food industry,” said Ellen Treimel, field organizer with the Missouri Public Interest Research Group.

In a 13-page briefing paper sent to federal and Missouri state officials, the groups describe the many ways pharmaceutical rice could be spread, including by rice-eating birds, floods, cross-pollination with other rice or related weeds, rice grains transported in farm machinery, or human error in cultivation, shipping and disposal.

“Just a few years ago, pharmaceutical corn got mixed into soybeans and regular corn,” said Joseph Mendelson, Legal Director of the Center for Food Safety. “The contaminated food had to be destroyed, costing millions of dollars. The same thing could happen with Ventria’s rice.”

“The Food and Drug Administration has not approved these rice-grown pharmaceuticals, and it may never do so,” added Freese. “It is irresponsible of the FDA to allow untested, unapproved pharmaceuticals to be grown in food crops when the risks of contamination are so great.”

The briefing paper cites scientific studies to highlight the potential human health impacts of Ventria’s pharmaceuticals, which are artificial versions of human milk and blood proteins. These risks include aggravation of bacterial infections, allergic reactions and autoimmune disorders.

The groups also dispute claims by industry representatives that biopharming will be an economic success for rice farmers or that new jobs will be created in Missouri.

“The claims they’re making about new jobs and benefits for Missouri farmers from biopharming are pure speculation,” said Treimel. “The truth is, neither Ventria nor any other biopharm company has gotten a single plant-made pharmaceutical approved by the FDA. No products, no jobs.”

Ventria Bioscience is presently based in California. In 2004, federal and California authorities quashed the company’s bid to grow 120 acres of pharmaceutical rice in Southern California, partly because of a prior violation of field trial permit conditions. In November 2004, the company announced plans to set up shop at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville. The move was prompted by opposition to pharmaceutical rice in California, a $30 million subsidy package from the state of Missouri, and a laxer regulatory environment in the state.

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