Scientists grow 'bird-friendly' GM sugar beet



Tim Radford, science editor
Wednesday January 15, 2003
The Guardian

Researchers experimenting with genetically modified sugar beet have
found a
way to keep yields high while providing weed cover for nesting skylarks,
lapwings, partridges, and other wild birds.
"This is the first time research has shown that GM herbicide-tolerant
crops
can be managed for environmental benefit," said John Pidgeon, director
of
the Broom's Barn research station in Suffolk. "The environmental
benefits
are particularly important for the UK and the rest of Europe, where
around
80% of the land is farmed."

The technique, outlined today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society,
uses
sugar beet modified to give a resistance gene to the herbicide
glyphosate.
The GM beet was developed by the agribusiness giant Monsanto, which also
for
a while held the patent on glyphosate, and the trials were funded by
Monsanto, partly, according to Dr Pidgeon, because no one else would
produce
the money.

The standard approach with herbicide-tolerant crops is to spray early,
and
spray regularly: if weeds are hit early, they never develop, and the
crop
flourishes in an otherwise sterile field. But sugar beet is planted in
rows
50cm (20in) apart, and the team at Broom's Barn looked for a way to
allow
weeds, and therefore insects, to survive between the rows.

They adjusted the nozzles on herbicide spreaders so that the rows of
emerging beet were sprayed but not the intervening spaces, allowing
weeds to
grow in them. They then sprayed these weeds later in the summer with
glyphosate, the only herbicide powerful enough to kill adult weeds. They
sampled the population levels of two kinds of insect, and spiders, and
found
that in the gaps there was a sevenfold increase over those found in
regular
spraying. The technique could work with maize or any crop sown in rows.

Beetles provide food for nesting birds; weeds provide seeds and cover;
and
even dying weeds attract scavenger insects that feed birds. Although the
experimental plots were small, the researchers were surprised to find
three
bird species had nested and raised broods in the the weeds between the
beet:
skylark, red partridge, and lapwing. All three are threatened by
conventional farming practices.

"I have been working with sugar beet for 19 years now, and in all that
time
I have never found a nesting skylark," said Alan Dewar, one of the team.

The research is not likely to lead immediately to the adoption of GM
beet.
The yield matches conventional cropping, but farmers might need some
other
incentive to encourage weeds in up to 800,000 hectares (2m acres) of
their
fields. And one skylark does not make a species revival.

"It's pretty easy to count the numbers of species in a field," said
Sandy
Knapp, a botanist at the Natural History Museum. "But it's far more
important for the ecosystem to be self-sustaining. That is a lot harder
to
measure."

But Stephen Smith of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council said: "Here
is a
sound piece of science that suggests that GM technology could be one of
the
tools to allow farming to move in the direction society wishes."

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,3604,874803,00.html