ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

12 March 2002


taken from the current issue - subscriptions:
Fixing on the farm
The Ecologist, Vol 32, No 2, March 2002

The biotech industry and its supporters are using the Government’s GM farm scale evaluation to perpetrate a scientific fraud...

Up in the remote Scottish Highlands last August a group of anti-GM protesters decided that rather than pulling up a GM trial, they would place it under close observation. Five months on, having successfully braved a Highland winter while fighting off efforts to have them removed, those manning the Munlochy vigil say that what they have been monitoring has proved more than interesting.

Visitors to the vigil have been surprised to be shown how differently the GM winter oilseed rape is performing compared to the non-GM plants in the parallel part of the trial. While the conventional crop is thriving, as Green MSP Robin Harper told Highland News, "It looked like the GM crop has grown about as high as a primrose."

Aventis, the company whose seed is at the centre of the trial, dismisses claims that the stunted-looking plants are the product of genetic instability, arguing the difference is explained by the use of different varieties of oilseed rape.  But Harper and the ‘vigil-antis’ point out that, even if this were the case, such a failure to compare like with like would add up to a farm scale farce.

With the GM plants at Munlochy only a quarter the size of the control crop, the latter "has substantial leafage and a close canopy, restricting the amount of light available for weeds to grow," explain Anthony Jackson and Nigel Mullan, two of the vigil stalwarts. More weeds means more insects, which would make the slower growing GM variety look better in terms of biodiversity but for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with genetic modification. For Harper that confirms that the trials are an "absolute nonsense and should be stopped. "

But some suspect a still more disturbing explanation for the poor performance of the GM crop: that the GM seed may have been deliberately planted deeper, thus weakening crop vigour. Why? Because weakening the crop’s performance would encourage weeds.

And this goes to the heart of the matter. Unless the trials provide no evidence that growing GM crops causes more damage to biodiversity than modern industrial farming (which has already had a devastating impact on the countryside), commercial approval of the technology will be unsellable in a country where farmland and wildlife are more or less inseparable.

Thus, ironically, while herbicide-resistant GM crops have been hyped to farmers as a high performing means of getting "clean" weed-free fields, and that’s exactly how they are being used by famers in North America, the covert goal of the UK trials has become the production of a bumper crop of British weeds!

The first clue as to what was afoot emerged back in 1998 when Monsanto began conducting press tours of GM crop trials run by scientists from the Institute of Arable Crops Research. The IACR scientists had allowed weeds to grow to an advanced stage amongst Monsanto’s herbicide-resistant beet before being sprayed with Roundup. The herbicide, as intended, killed everything except the GM beet but the remaining hefty plant population rotted down to produce a deep mulch, which Monsanto claimed was supporting insect life that would in turn support other wildlife.

Large sections of the farming and general media were taken in: "Genetically engineered crops can save farmers money, reduce chemical spraying and create a better habitat for birds and insects, scientists claimed yesterday", reported The Times under the title, "Modified crops help man and wildlife".

When, nearly two-years later, the relevant IACR study was finally published[1], it turned out that the delayed herbicide application produced heavy yield losses. In other words, letting the weeds grow late caused a yield penalty that farmers would be unlikely to accept. Yet despite this, late herbicide application is exactly the kind of unrealistic approach which farmers currently involved in the farm scale evaluation are being advised to adopt in order to "enhance" the GM crops profile in terms of biodiversity.

The IACR researchers who pioneered this approach are, in fact, among the senior scientists now overseeing the FSEs[2]  while the institute which allowed Monsanto to spin their industry-funded study two-years ahead of publication, is one of the principal scientific contractors carrying out the trials[3]. IACR has, needless to say, formed partnerships with a string of biotechnology companies[4]. Attitudes at the institute are so corporate friendly, in fact, that one of the co-authors of a report to government on the trials‚ progress is among several IACR scientists who have simultaneously worked for the biotech-industry financed pro-GM lobby, CropGen.[5]

Is it any wonder, then, that we’re failing to get a realistic assessment of the risks of GM crops? Or that while ‘independent’ science is busy sacrificing the public good to private interests, it is down to the vigilant watchers out in the driving sleet and rain at Munlochy to bear witness to what has all the appearances of a farm scale fraud.


[1] "Delayed control of weeds in glyphosate-tolerant sugar beet and the consequences on aphid infestation and yield" authored by Alan M Dewar, Lisa A Haylock, Kathy M Bean, Mike J May of IACR-Broom's Barn, Pest Management Science, Vol 56, Issue 4, 2000. p 345-350 (April 2000)

[2] Alan Dewar and Mike May

[3] The FSEs are being carried out by a consortium of three organisations: the Institute of Arable Crops Research (IACR) the Scottish Crop Research Institute (SCRI) and the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology (ITE)

[4] 'Our partners include AgrEvo [now Aventis) DuPont , Novartis and Syngenta.'

[5] 'Dr Lutman is co-author of a report to the government on the progress of the trials‚
UK Government 'should sack GM adviser'
Thursday, 16 March, 2000, 00:07 GMT

Lutman is Head of Research Programme Weed Biology and Control at the Institute of Arable Crops Research and was at the time of the article one of three IACR scientists working with CropGen.

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