ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

17 February 2002


On the day that Prime Minister Blair was variously described by British press commentators as a (corporate) rent boy and a playground nerd who sucked up to (corporate) bullies by offering to do their homework for them, Lord Sainsbury is back in the news.
February 17, 2002
Trials show some GM crops benefit wildlife
Jonathan Leake, Science Editor

LEAKED results from the trials of genetically modified crops being conducted throughout Britain will further polarise opinion on the controversial technology, with some varieties found to damage the environment and others found to improve it.

The results are preliminary - based on data from the first two years of crop trials, which have another year to run - but are seen by the researchers as a strong indication of what is to come.

They show that while modified maize has cut the use of herbicides and encouraged the growth of grasses, weeds and seeds that prevent soil erosion and provide food for wildlife, GM oilseed rape and beet have done the opposite and are damaging the environment.

The results come as ministers brace themselves for a Whitehall war over the future of GM crops. On one side is Lord Sainsbury, the science minister, who is keenly in favour of such technologies. He has stayed out of the public debate over GM foods because of his previous
commercial links to biotechnology companies, but privately he has made it clear to colleagues that he is strongly in favour of such technologies. His office controls the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, which allocates millions of pounds of government money for GM crop research.

On the other side is Michael Meacher, the environment minister, who fears that Sainsbury's enthusiasm takes too little account of public concern over food safety and threats to the environment. Meacher has made it clear he believes that scientists still know too little about the impact of commercial cultivation of GM crops for the government to make a decision on their future. His real fear, however, is of a second public backlash against the government if it appears to be supporting the biotechnology firms.

There are very real fears that GM crop production might have a negative effect on our wildlife, said Meacher recently. That is why GM crops will not be grown commercially until we are satisfied there will be no unacceptable effects on the environment.

This weekend, however, it emerged that Margaret Beckett, the environment secretary, who is also Meacherís boss, is closer to Sainsbury's views. An environment department source said: "Beckettís view is that it is no longer a GM-free world. This technology is out there and she is keen that Britain gets the benefits."

Beckett's views will come as a blow to Meacher - but the leaked results will give ammunition to all sides. Maize is grown largely as fodder for cattle but produces very poor yields unless treated with herbicides to kill off the weeds that otherwise smother it. Most farmers use atrazine, which kills weeds as they germinate, remains in the soil for months and is renowned for its longevity and toxicity. It is applied soon after the maize starts sprouting, so saving the crop from its deadly effects.

The maize under trial, by contrast, is modified to withstand a much less toxic chemical called Glufosinate. The trials have shown that grasses and clover soon begin to grow again under the maturing maize - and then cover the field once it has been harvested.

Adrian Bebb, a campaigner with Friends of the Earth, said it was misleading to compare 'a bad system with a less bad system'. He added: 'All they have done is replace a really nasty herbicide with one that is a bit less nasty.'

Others disagree. Alan Gray, a professor of plant genetics who chairs the government's Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (Acre), said it was now clear that declaring GM crops to be either all good or all bad was simplistic and naive.

This weekend, the environment department said Britain could be facing the first full-scale commercial plantings of GM crops within 18 months - soon after the trial results become available.

Such a move risks a consumer backlash of the kind that prompted many supermarkets to ban GM products from their shelves three years ago. Since then biotechnology companies have been working on new modifications. Monsanto is looking at increasing the wax content of corn - enabling the creation of cornflakes that do not get soggy when milk is poured over them.

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