Environmentalists dispute study showing GM crops do not harm the countryside

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A study of genetically modified crops has found no evidence to suggest they are harmful to the countryside, fuelling the debate about the environmental effects of the technology.

A study of genetically modified crops has found no evidence to suggest they are harmful to the countryside, fuelling the debate about the environmental effects of the technology.

Environmentalists were quick to dispute the research, published yesterday and jointly funded by the biotechnology industry and the Government. It examined the effects of growing GM sugar beet and winter oilseed rape and found that over a four-year period there were no significant differences between GM and non-GM crops in the diversity of wild flowers and weed seeds in the same fields, a key source of food for birds and other animals.

Friends of the Earth said the results appeared to confirm fears that commercial GM crops would be difficult to control and would cross-pollinate with non-GM crops, posing a "real threat" of contamination for conventional varieties.

The environmental group's GM campaigner, Emily Diamand, said yesterday: "Conventional oilseed rape would be threatened with GM contamination, and GM 'superweeds' could add to the problems for farmers."

The project investigated the effects on the environment of growing herbicide-tolerant GM crops in rotation with cereal crops over four years. The study, entitled "Bright - the Botanical and Rotational Implications of Genetically Modified Herbicide Tolerance", found that rotated GM crops did not deplete the soil of weed seeds needed by birds and other wildlife.

Jeremy Sweet, of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany and the study's scientific co-ordinator, said: "GM crops, and particularly GM winter oilseed rape, is not particularly detrimental to the environment, depending on how they are grown. If you use them badly, you can end up damaging the environment. But if you manage them well, they do not deplete fields of seeds for birds."

In September, a survey showed attitudes to GM foods were hardening. More than six out of 10 people (61 per cent) polled for the consumer magazine Which? said they were concerned about the use of GM material in food production - up from 56 per cent in 2002.

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