GM sugar beet could aid wildlife, say researchers

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Campaigners battling genetically-modified crops today attacked a new study which claimed GM sugar beet could be beneficial to wildlife.

Campaigners battling genetically-modified crops today attacked a new study which claimed GM sugar beet could be beneficial to wildlife.

Protesters say claims by a UK research team that better management of the crop would help bird life is a "last ditch attempt to save GM sugar beet".

The Broom's Barn Research Station at Bury St Edmunds said its study showed "conclusively" how to use GM herbicide tolerant, GMHT, crop technology for the benefit of the environment.

Its authors claim new crop management approaches could resolve "legitimate concerns about indirect environmental effects of GM sugar beet on weeds, insects and birds".

Dr John Pidgeon, director of Broom's Barn, said: "This work adds a new perspective to future discussions about the benefits from GMHT sugar beet that the public, environmentalists and farmers should all be interested in."

A key environmental concern over GM sugar beet is that wildlife which traditionally feeds on weeds and seeds that grows amongst the crop would be lost, leaving birds and insects nothing to eat.

Broom's Barn claims that to obtain wildlife benefits in spring, they have improved the timing of herbicide application to maximise both crop yields and the benefits from leaving weeds between crop rows.

Maximising crops yields will also improve the take-up rate by farmers, the study claimed.

In the more important autumn season, when weeds provide seeds for bird food and for recharging weed seedbanks, the paper demonstrated a system that again gives maximum crop yield but which also gives a 16 times greater "weed seed availability" when compared to previous GM or conventional management systems tested in the government's recent Farm Scale Evaluation trials.

A Broom's Barn spokesman said: "The new system is extremely simple in comparison. It involves applying the first spray fairly early and omitting the second spray, making additional cost and pesticide savings on top of the already large savings compared to conventional practice."

Dr Pidgeon told the BBC: "We're scientists, and we go by the evidence. We think this is all about how you manage the crops, not whether they're genetically modified or not.

"If you manage the crop differently and to benefit the environment, you get a different result. Perhaps all sides of the GM debate need to think again."

But the study has been attacked by the Five Year Freeze Campaign, battling for a delay on any GM crops. It claimed farmers would reject highly complex farming techniques on a crop which has "no long-term future".

The campaign group said only one method to increase weed growth within the beet could be used, not both methods proposed in the paper.

Campaign director Pete Riley, said: "The choices offered by GM sugar beet cropping appear to offer farmland birds three options: insufficient food throughout the year, early season food or autumn food.

"We doubt that this last ditch attempt to save GM sugar beet will have much credibility with regulators or farmers. They are trying to make it sound as if this is a solution. It's not. Farmers will not be leaping with joy about an even more complicated way of growing their crops."