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GM crops: the arguments for and against

17 October 2003

Michael Meacher: Against

Not only do the crops fail test of public acceptability, they also fail scientific test

The Government has boxed itself into a corner over GM. Four years ago it set up environmental trialsto check whether GM crops had any adverse effects on the network of life (insects, worms, butterflies etc) in the fields. If they did not ­ and it was assumed that no harm of any significance would be found ­ then the green light could be given to commercial cultivation.

This strategy is unravelling. The research, overseen by the Government's Scientific Steering Committee, looked at oilseed rape, sugar beet and forage maize, and compared the effects of chemical weedkillers used on these with those used on the same non-GM crops. In the case of oilseed rape and beet, the effects of broad-spectrum weedkillers, glyphosate or glufosinate ammonium, on GM crops were worse for the environment than conventional weedkillers used on non-GM crops.In the case of maize, the opposite was found. But the main chemical used to kill weeds in non-GM maize was so toxic that it had even nastier effects than the GM maize weedkiller. That chemical is atrazine. It has already been banned in Germany and the Netherlands and now the EU has decided to ban it in all member states. So the trials involving a comparison with atrazine are invalid. Fresh trials need to be undertaken. Until that is done, there is no case for GM maize in Britain.

Other dimensions, not included in these trials, involve the effects on soil residues and bacteria, transgene flows and bird populations. Above all it would be necessary to test what would happen to the environment if farmers, in a real marketplace situation, were trying to maximise yield and not, as in these trials, to limit adverse effects on the wildlife.

There are at least three other areas of uncertainty. The most important are the effects of eating GM foods on human health. Astonishingly, this has never been investigated, either in North America or in the EU. In the rare cases where research has been carried out on animals or humans, the results have been negative. This is an area that the Government has chosen to disregard.

The second area is how organic and conventional crops can be protected from cross-contamination by GM crops. Wind-borne GM pollen can travel considerable distances and bees are also known to transport pollen. The European Commission found this problem to be insoluble and passed the buck to member states. But there are no guarantees to protect farmers.

The third area concerns labelling. Even when the new EU rules on labelling are introduced, they will only operate above a 0.9 per cent threshold. In a supermarket, there will be no label on a bottle or packet, you won't know whether it is genuinely GM-free or contains up to nearly 1 per cent GM.

So not only does the GM case fail the test of public acceptability, as the recent GM Nation Debate has convincingly demonstrated, it also fails the scientific test. But we are told the Government is listening. We await evidence that they have heard.

Michael Meacher was Environment minister from 1997 to July 2003

Paul Rylott: For

It is time to let both farmers and consumers benefit from the flexibility of GM technology

The results of the Farm Scale Evaluations (FSE) confirm what industry has long argued: the flexibility of GM crops allows them to be grown in a way that benefits the environment.

The pressure groups claimed that GM crops were in effect "green concrete" and would "wipe out" wildlife. These studiesshow that this sort of scaremongering is not supported by the facts. On the contrary ­ this evidence reiterates commercial experience from around the world, that GM crops are more flexible and can enhance biodiversity.

These FSEs were not GM on trial. As the Scientific Steering Committee said: "The researchers stress that the differences ... were not a result of the way in which the crops were genetically modified.

"They arose because these GM crops gave farmers taking part in the trial new options for weed control." It was not GM versus conventional farming which was significant, but different approaches to crop type, herbicide use and management practices.

This research highlighted that the impact on biodiversity is all to do with how farmers control weeds; when you want to grow high-quality, safe, affordable food, you have to control weeds that otherwise degrade quality, safety and affordability.

None of the studies published this year supports the banning of GM crops. The economic review by the Strategy Unit argued that while short-term economic benefits may be limited (in excess of 50m per year to farmers), future developments could offer much more to consumers and farmers.

The science review concluded that "the risks to human health are very low for GM crops currently on the market". The report found no evidence to support claimsthat crops would become superweeds, saying that "they are very unlikely to invade our countryside or become problematic plants".

Even "GM Nation?" ­ the public debate, allegedly conclusive proof that British people did not want GM ­ reported that the more balanced focus groups could see advantages of GM providing cheaper food, helping UK farmers compete abroad and assisting developing countries.

Michael Meacher, the former environment minister, has claimed that the use of atrazine in the maize tests invalidates the results. This is wrong. Atrazine was one of 10 herbicides used on conventional maize in the FSEs.

It is a shame that, despite being responsible for setting up the FSE trials and having very strong views on the subject, Mr Meacher failed to visit any of the 280 FSE trial sites in the four-year period. He might have seen the environmental and biodiversity benefits that flexible weed management using GM crops allowed.

These studies are a tribute to the farmers, the industry and the scientists. We look forward to submitting our response to the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment.

It is now time for the responsible introduction of GM crops to the UK. This would allow farmers and consumers to benefit from the choice and flexibility that GM offers.

Paul Rylott is chairman of the Agriculture Biotechnology Council