Protesters 'censor' GM crop benefits
Protesters who destroy
genetically modified crops are conducting a campaign of censorship designed to
mislead the public, says one of Britain’s leading agricultural scientists said
Vandalism of GM trials has nothing to do with environmentalism, but aims to
suppress research into the ecological benefits of the technology, according to
John Pidgeon, director of the Broom’s Barn Research Station in Suffolk.
Activist groups, such as Greenpeace, are so concerned that field trials may
undermine their blanket opposition to GM crops that they prefer to rip them up
so that the results will never be known, he said. As a result, the public is
getting a one-sided view of the potential environmental benefits and risks of
Dr Pidgeon added: “The public has a right to know about environmental
research, and we have faced repeated attempts to halt this research, which we
regard as a form of censorship.”
Environmental benefit from GM sugar beet
Broom’s Barn has
published a study (Proceedings of Royal Society, Series B, Jan 15 2003) showing
that GM sugar beet could bring major ecological benefits to the countryside,
helping farmland birds, such as the skylark and the lapwing, to make a comeback.
The research found that the herbicide-resistant sugar beet allowed weeds, seeds
and insects, on which threatened birds feed, to thrive without an impact on
The trial was funded by the biotechnology company Monsanto, but the scientists
were free to publish their results without its approval.
Conventional sugar beet
seedlings have to be sprayed with herbicides within a few days of germination if
they are not so be suffocated by invading weeds. This means fields are sprayed
several times and are virtually devoid of weeds.
There are few insects and spiders for birds to feed on and little cover for
ground-nesting species such as skylarks.
The team tested a strategy that permits weeds to grow in the 50-centimetre-wide
gullies between crops. The GM beets used were resistant to broad-spectrum
herbicides that "kill anything green". Four to six weeks after sowing
the seed, the researchers killed weeds near the emerging seedlings, but allowed
all others to carry on growing.
Not until four to six weeks later did they destroy these gully-dwellers with a
second dose of weedkiller. Even then, the weeds took up to three weeks to die,
providing continued food and refuge for wildlife as they did so.
"You have six to 15 weeks after sowing when you still have the weeds there.
With conventional beet growing, the field is bare the whole time," said
By capturing and
identifying tens of thousands of insects in traps, the team showed that the GM
plots were far richer in bugs - staphylinid beetles were up to five times as
Although the GM sugar beet plots were relatively small – about 144 sq metres
(1,550 sq ft) – the the findings were broadly applicable to other crops grown
on a much bigger scale, Dr Dewar said.
"I've spent 19 years crawling around sugar beet fields and I have never in
all that time seen a skylark's nest. I saw my first one in one of the GM
plots," he said. "I didn't expect these things to happen but they did
and I was quite pleased."
Farms growing sugar beet occupy about 15 per cent of England's arable farmland,
so wider use of the GM regime could help
attract wildlife to significant areas. And similar strategies should be
applicable to any crop grown in rows, such as maize and soya, suggesting global
The hope is that if used extensively, the beet could provide enough food and
cover to attract back birds such as skylarks and lapwings, whose numbers have
dwindled on European farms.
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."