Genetic-crop threat to wildlife survival

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The Independent Online
FIELDS of genetically engineered crops may lead to the starvation of wildlife, government advisers warned yesterday. Birds and insects could be deprived of the weeds and weed seeds which are an important food source.

The reason is that many of these crops are designed to be used with broad- spectrum herbicides which wipe out every kind of plant except the crop itself, which has been genetically modified to be resistant to the weedkiller.

The Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment is concerned that when this revolutionary technology takes off, cereal fields and their borders will be even more weed-free than they are with modern intensive farming techniques. The committee's

chairman, John Beringer, Professor of Molecular Genetics at Bristol University, said: ''It could be cranking up the pressure on species if this technology proceeds to the limit.''

The committee's job is to advise ministers on what genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, can safely be released for use in the environment. GMOs are created when genes from one plant or animal are shifted permanently into the DNA of another, creating varieties unlikely to arise in evolution or through ordinary breeding techniques.

Several companies are jostling to bring GMOs to Europe. The crops are widely grown in the United States, but in the European Union they face hurdles set up by the EU and by its member states. There have been many small trials, but the earliest that a GMO can legally be planted on a commercial basis will probably be next spring, or later. The front- runner is a modified oilseed rape owned by a Belgian company, Plant Genetic Systems.

The committee yesterday held its first press conference, on the publication of its fourth annual report, reflecting members' concern that the public isbaffled and fearful about genetic engineering.

Professor Beringer said that the committee's main aim was not to endorse any GMO product which was more harmful than its ordinary equivalent.

The committee considers each application case by case. That meant it may miss the cumulative impact of many GMOs being approved and grown in Britain, he said, adding: ''We ought to flag up things which could be a problem.''