Report finds GM crops are good for environment

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The Independent Online

Genetically-modified crops might be better for the environment than the unmodified form, allowing insects and spiders to flourish around their edges and providing more food for birds, according to new research.

Genetically-modified crops might be better for the environment than the unmodified form, allowing insects and spiders to flourish around their edges and providing more food for birds, according to new research.

The finding could hint at the results that will emerge from the farm-scale trials of GM crops now being carried out in Britain. Those will end this summer and be used by the Government to decide whether to allow commercial planting of GM crops, in which a key consideration is their effect on surrounding plant and animal life.

Tests at Denmark's National Environmental Research Institute discovered that when GM sugar beet was used precisely according to the instructions from the manufacturer, Monsanto, the plots had twice as many weeds compared with those planted with conventional beet. Beate Strandberg, who led the research, told New Scientist magazine that the GM plots also had more animal life than the conventional ones.

She thinks that the results from her tests will foreshadow those from the UK's farm-scale trials. Research at the Broom's Barn Experimental Station in Suffolk found earlier this year that if less herbicide is used than the manufacturers recommend, then the wildlife does even better. Dr Strandberg said that this confirmed her own work, which found that holding back on the use of weedkiller produced 10 times more weeds, and twice as many insects, but did not reduce the beet yield. "We have had very similar things going on," she said.

In the British farm-scale trials, which have been running for five years, the farmers have been told to follow the manufacturer's label instructions precisely when spraying GM crops so that the effect of widespread growing will be clearer.

Not all the findings were positive. The use of GM crops seemed to affect the balance of weeds species in fields: many died in late summer before they could produce seeds. The use of Monsanto's glyphosate weedkiller, to which the GM beet is resistant, could also help weeds such as dwarf nettles over those such as meadowgrass, and hence have "unpredictable" effects on the biodiversity within farm areas, the researchers said.

The Danish team has been working since 1990 on the effects of GM crops that are resistant to particular weedkillers. GM crops hold the promise of potentially higher yields, because their genetic modification means farmers can spray them with weedkiller without harming them; only the weeds die. But this has raised questions about the effect on animals and weeds that grow in the margins around the crops themselves.

Another issue that was not tackled directly in this study was whether the genes from the GM crops could pass to weeds. The British farm-scale trials will also investigate that, and try to rank its importance.

* Polluting pine trees could be as bad for the world's environment as emissions from factories and motor vehicles, Finnish scientists warn. They report in the science journal Nature that in the right conditions of sunlight combined with high levels of ultraviolet radiation, Scots pine trees can release smog-making nitrogen oxides directly into the air. They say the source of the nitrogen oxides is unclear. It could arise from plant metabolism, or the effect of sunlight hitting pine needle surfaces.

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