How GM crop trials were rigged
Ministers knew of the environmental dangers, but the tests were designed not to focus on this. Geoffrey Lean reports
12 October 2003
In truth the GM trials, whose results will be reported on Thursday, were always more political than scientific. And their impact - despite being the biggest experiments of their kind conducted anywhere in the world - will be felt most in Whitehall, Westminster and the often disconcertingly plush offices of the big environmental pressure groups.
Their establishment, in 1999, was a political act. Michael Meacher, the then environment minister who was already developing doubts about the technology, pulled off a remarkably skilful coup in getting all sides to agree to them and thus postpone the introduction of commercial GM crops until the results were in.
At the time, several modified crops were ready to be grown in Britain and Tony Blair would have been happy to give them the go-ahead. But English Nature, the Government's wildlife watchdog, was raising concerns about their effects on the environment. And a furious public row was mounting with several newspapers - led by The Independent on Sunday - campaigning for a delay.
Mr Meacher agrees that "the purpose behind the tests was to buy time". But everyone gladly went along with this. Industry and government believed that if the heat could be taken out of the issue for a few years the public would stop worrying and learn to love the technology.
In classic Whitehall fashion, the tests - on GM maize, oilseed rape, and sugar beet - were fixed in a way that everyone thought would enable the technology to pass them. Everyone knew, even then, that the main danger to the environment from GM crops was that they would cross-pollinate with nearby plants. So the trials were deliberately designed not to focus on this.
Instead they looked at the effects of using different kinds of weedkillers on the crops. Over the next three years, 283 fields across Britain were divided in half: one side was sown with the GM crops and sprayed with the special weedkillers which they had been bred to resist; the other was seeded with conventional crops, and treated with the usual herbicides.
Pro-GM ministers asserted that the results of the trials would determine the Government's final decision on GM agriculture. More recently ministers and the industry have begun to be seized by the dread that it might all go horribly wrong, with ministers stressing that the results of the tests would be just one element in the final verdict. And so it seems to have proved.
Leaks suggest that the results show that the weedkillers applied to two of the GM crops - oilseed rape and sugar beet - actually did more damage to the environment than the ones used on conventional crops. This would be a devastating conclusion, because there is no way the farmers can change them: the GM crops are specifically bred to tolerate them.
But the leaks also suggest that the herbicide used on the third GM crop, maize, was actually less damaging than the one used on its conventional counterpart. So ministers started preparing plans to approve GM maize, while banning or postponing modified sugar beet and oilseed rape.
This strategy has been torpedoed by last week's EU's ban on atrazine, the weedkiller used on conventional maize. It has long been on the danger list, suspected of causing cancer and "gender-bender" effects. Now it will have to be withdrawn within 12 months.
This invalidates the tests, because they no longer reflect the real conditions under which crops will be grown. Unless they carry out new trials with an alternative to atrazine, ministers cannot claim that growing GM maize is safe. And, as the new chemical is likely to be more benign, the tests would probably come down against the modified crop.
Crucial questions about controversial tests
What have the field trials done?
For three years, scientists tested GM maize, oilseed rape and sugar beet by measuring the impact of weedkillers for GM crops on local weeds and wildlife, and compared it with the impact of ordinary weedkillers. They did not look at the effect on soil or humans, or consider whether GM genes crossed into ordinary crops.
Why do they matter?
The results, due out on Thursday, will determine whether these crops get commercial approval in the UK. They are expected to say that the herbicide used on GM oilseed rape is more damaging to local wildlife than conventional weedkillers; and that herbicide for GM maize and sugar beet could be safer than the conventional.
What will ministers do next?
The UK's Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission will report soon on how easily GM crops can "co-exist" with non-GM crops. It will also decide how compensation will be paid if non-GM or organic crops are contaminated by GM genes.
Which crops are next?
Monsanto, Bayer and Syngenta have another 20 other GM crop varieties waiting EU approval.
What are other countries doing?
The US and Canada have millions of acres of GM soybeans and maize. The US, China, Mexico, India and Argentina have GM cotton.