Modified Thinking


A three-year British study on the ecological impact of genetically modified crops, the biggest ever of its kind, has just reported that GM is both good and bad, but mostly bad, for the environment, heating up an already lively debate in Europe. But don’t expect that kind of discussion in the United States, where the study was widely ignored by the media.

This is nothing new. Americans are amazingly uninformed about genetically modification. A poll conducted by Harris Interactive in 2000 fournd that only 15% of the public had seen, read or heard “a lot” about genetically engineered foods in general. But the same poll showed that Americans are overwhelmingly (83%) in favor of government-mandated labeling of GM foods and that a majority, 56 percent, believes it likely that GM crops will “upset the balance of nature and damage the environment.” They might find the British studies findings interesting, if they ever hear about them.

GM plants were introduced commercially in the United States in 1996, without much scientific research. Since then the United States has become the largest producer of GM food crops, accounting for over two-thirds of all biotechnology crops planted globally (96.3 million acres), says the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.

The GM trials conducted at some 60 sites across Britain were the largest scientific experiments of their kind anywhere in the world but their focus was only a narrow set of issues. The BBC provides a very helpful Q & A on the trials.

Three GM crops (oilseed rape, sugar beet, and maize) were tested to measure their effect on farmland wildlife. The results were reported on Thursday in eight lengthy papers in the journal Philosophical Transactions Of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences and were somewhat contradictory.

Both the genetically modified variety of the oilseed rape and sugar beet plants turned out to be more harmful to the environment than conventional crops. They reduced the numbers of some birds and insects as the trial fields hosted fewer weeds and weed seeds that support wildlife. However, the GM maize actually turned out to be better for wildlife. There were more weeds in and around the biotech maize crops, more butterflies and bees at certain times of year, and more weed seeds.

Given the mixed news in the findings, both sides in the heavily politicized debate about GM crops in Europe were able to declare victory.

Biotech advocacy groups, likeCropGen, thinks the results are good news for the biotech industry, and are proof that GM crops are beneficial to the environment, to farmers and to consumers. Which, on the evidence, seems a bit of a stretch. Today is a “momentous day for UK agriculture,” CropGen said in a statement. “GM Maize is good for farmers, better for biodiversity and is ready for commercial cultivation.” Others, like Paul Rylott, of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, which represents biotech firms like Monsanto and Bayer CropScience also seemed happy,reports the BBC:

“‘These results confirm what industry has long argued. The flexibility of GM crops allows them to be grown in a way that benefits the environment.’ He added: ‘Activist groups claimed that GM crops were in effect ‘green concrete’ and would ‘wipe out’ wildlife. These studies show that this sort of scaremongering is not supported by the evidence. On the contrary – this evidence shows that GM crops are more flexible and can enhance biodiversity.'”

The Scotsman interviewed many folks with the opposite view and writes about an increasingly vocal oppositionto GM in Europe:

“The trials have been dogged by controversy from the start when environmental groups destroyed some crops warning of the dangers of cross-pollination which it was claimed would destroy the livelihoods of organic farmers. Opponents also fear GM crop technology could lead to the emergence of new herbicide-resistant weeds which could cause havoc in the countryside.

… Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, which campaigns for organic food production, said: ‘We’ve always been critical of the scientific methodology of the trials as being too narrow, but even so the results show that GM crops would damage the environment. The Government mustn’t use the maize results as a fig-leaf justification for GM crops. GM maize cross pollinates very easily by wind and, if commercial planting was given the go ahead, would pose a real danger both to conventional and organic farmers.’ There was also criticism from leading environmental groups.

Friends of the Earth spokesman Pete Riley told PA News: ‘The results for GM oilseed rape and beet leave the Government no alternative but to ban these crops from the UK. They have a serious impact on agricultural wildlife and could lead to extinctions of birds in the short term. For maize crops we are very unconvinced by the quality of the experiment. There is no evidence to show the GM maize crop would be commercially viable.’

Greenpeace executive director Stephen Tindale said: ‘These trials were a political fudge that did not begin to address the possible catastrophic effects that GM could bring about. But even within their limited scope, they clearly show that the alleged benefits of GM do not exist. ‘

… Dr Sue Mayer, director of GeneWatch, a science and policy group which looks at the issues surrounding genetic engineering described the results as ‘shocking’. She added: ‘The UK’s farmland wildlife has been decimated by intensive farming. If we grow herbicide tolerant crops here it may be the final nail in the coffin for some species.'”

Interestingly, the world’s largest GM company, Monsanto, pulled out of the European cereal business just one day before the GM study was released. Monsanto cited lack of growth as its official reason, which probably means they have given up on trying to win over skeptical Europeans to the cause of GM hybrid wheat. In one of the few U.S. mentions of the GM trials, CNN reports:

“Monsanto said it would remain in the UK crop protection and oilseed rape business, which would move to a new base in Cambridge. One of the reasons the company was closing its cereal business, was so it could focus on putting more research into GM development, [Monsanto Northern Europe general manager Jeff Cox] said. EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom accused U.S. biotech companies this week of ‘trying to lie’ and ‘force’ unsuitable GM technology on Europe.”

Even U.K. shadow environment secretary David Lidington, of the business-friendly Conservative Party, said, “The fact that the impact of different GM seeds on wild plants and invertebrates varies so markedly shows that we must proceed with skepticism and caution.” Which pretty much sums up the general attitude of the British population at large. As part of the report GM Nation?, the British government conducted interviews with over 37,000 Brits. As it turns out, only 2% said they would be happy to eat GM foods. The report says the public mood on GM “ranged from caution and doubt, through suspicion and scepticism, to hostility and rejection.” A majority, 54 percent, of Britons oppose GM crops, saying they should never be introduced under any circumstance.

The results of the British study will now be assessed by Acre (the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment), which will advise the U.K. government on their implications. A decision by ministers on whether to commercialize the crops could come later this year, or early in 2004. Europe is now watching Britain’s next steps very closely as its decision will have far reaching implications for the continent. Whether the results will have any impact in the United States remains to be seen.