ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

20 February 2002


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The article below appeared in the 'Policy' section of the February 2002 edition of 'Welsh Farmer' (p17), the official monthly journal of the Farmers' Union of Wales (FUW). This paper has the highest farmer readership of any journal - including UK farming journals ? circulating in Wales. NLPWessex has added additional web links within the text below for further reference during on-line use.

On the same page Welsh Farmer also reports that 'Euro MP Jill Evans, a member of the EU's Environment Committee, told the Western Mail recently that no GM crops was the only answer to increasing concerns in Wales about GM crops'.


Y Tir Issue 188 February 2002
llais ffermwyr cymru - the voice of welsh farming
Welsh Farmer
Flaws in GM crop trials
by Mark Griffiths, BSc FRICS FAAV

The government's farm-scale trials of GM crops have been criticised by many environmentalists for lacking the sophistication necessary to provide a proper assessment of their effects on biodiversity.  But will they tell farmers anything useful about the technology instead? Almost certainly very little.

One of the biggest flaws of the trials is that they have been designed in a way which is unlikely to reflect how the technology is used in practice.  This means that firm conclusions relating to biodiversity impact relative to agronomic performance will be difficult to derive, and at an expense of around £4 million of taxpayers money that is a wasteful outcome.

In most, if not all, cases in the trials only single applications of the broad spectrum contact herbicide concerned will be applied to the GM crop and the timing of applications (which is likely to influence the results of the trials) will be left to the decision of SCIMAC, the biotechology industry led group involved with the trials. However, after several years experience of GM herbicide resistant crops in the US and elsewhere a number of factors regarding the practical use of this technology have become apparent:

* using the broad spectrum herbicide in question on its own usually requires multiple applications to achieve the degree of weed control sought by farmers
* both early and late applications of the broad spectrum herbicide, if used on its own, are usually required
* alternatively the broad spectrum contact herbicide needs to be supplemented with other herbicides, particularly soil acting residuals

Rarely are farmers in the US now using single applications of herbicides like glyphosate and glufosinate in conjunction with GM crops tolerant to these chemicals.  The original intention was that one application would be enough, but the products were brought to the market before University research stations had had time to do proper independent testing. Several years of commercial experience have since shown that single applications are not usually a viable option - the yield penalties of such an approach are too heavy. A recent US report in fact demonstrates that the introduction of GM herbicide resistant crops has lead to an overall increase in the use of herbicides, not the reduction which had originally been suggested.

One reason for this is that to get adequate weed kill with a single application of broad spectrum contact herbicide means waiting until after late germinating weeds have emerged.  By that stage early emerging weeds may have taken their toll on yield. One study on glyphosate resistant GM sugar beet carried out by the UK's Institute of Arable Crops Research showed that delayed applications could depress crops yields by up to 31% compared with a conventional herbicide programme.

According to another study reported by the Weed Science Society of America and relating to glufosinate resistant GM maize (also included in the UK farm-scale trials) in Hungary : "The results of field experiments showed that a weed management strategy with glufosinate must include multiple applications, residual herbicides or mechanical control".

In reality what should have happened in the UK - if you are interested in good science and meaningful information - is that a series of agronomic field trials on GM crops should have been carried out first in order to establish the way farmers are likely to grow the crops in practice, taking into account their need to preserve crop yields and financial returns.  At that point biodiversity trials could have been carried out based on the likely preferred agronomy.

Although some GM agronomic trials with input from the NIAB are also taking place in the UK, the results are arriving after the commencement of the biodiversity trials. Nonetheless the NIAB already acknowledges that GM herbicide resistant volunteers are going to arise in follow-on crops, and that this will necessitate changes in herbicide management further down the rotation. This is one more knock-on effect from the technology which is not being factored into the farm-scale biodiversity trials.

Whilst biodiversity may not be the overriding concern of every farmer, the arrival of herbicide resistant volunteers is a serious economic issue. In the case of GM herbicide resistant rape in Canada the situation has become so severe that one agronomist from the University of Manitoba described the problem on national television as 'impossible to control'. Some farmers have resorted to chemicals such as 2,4-D in order to try and deal with the situation.

As a result of cross pollination some rape volunteers in Canada are now resistant to more than one herbicide associated with GM crops. This can make, for example, the task of post-harvest stubble cleaning a hit and miss affair without resorting to additional herbicide chemistry and tank mixes, particularly if the contamination is coming in unawares from neighboring holdings beyond the control of the farmer.

This can hardly be described as a forward step either for farm profitability or the environment. The situation is so serious that a near impossible nine-point GM volunteer management plan is being recommended by agronomists in Alberta, and even Canada's own NFU is supporting farmers in taking related legal action against the biotechnology industry.

Few of these factors are being taken into account in the UK farm-scale trials. The net result is that neither environmentalists nor farmers are going to be much the wiser at the end. A large amount of money from DEFRA's budget (which should have been provided by the biotechnology industry in the first place) is going to be wasted at a time when it is desperately needed elsewhere by an already hard-pressed industry.

It is quite clear, particularly from the experience with rape in Canada, that GM herbicide resistant varieties create more problems for farmers than they solve. It is really quite astonishing that our own government has made little attempt to learn from the North American experience
prior to going ahead with its own farm-scale plantings. In effect the government has now become avoidably complicit in an exercise which is in danger of selling UK farmers a 'pup', whilst simultaneously alienating a large portion of their customers - the UK food buying public.

Is that what British farming really needs right now?

Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Surveyor specialising in rural land management based in Hampshire.  A consultant to both the public and private sectors he was European Rural Policy Adviser to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors 1995-2000.
For more information on the agronomy of GM crops see:
Welsh farmers are being urged to boycott the government-sponsored tests of genetically modified maize Northern Ireland to be declared a GM-free zone for ethical and economic reasons?
Quantum bio-physics in living organisms - Dec 2001
Breakthrough for Sustainable Biology - April 2001
US data reveals UK GM trials unscientific - Feb 2001
GE fantasy shattered by human genome project - Feb 2001
Immediate Global Ban of GM Food - global NLP campaign update ? Aug 2000
FAO report reveals GM not needed to feed the world - July 2000
Solution to the GM debate? - Feb 2000

Solar Energy, Agriculture and World Peace

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