GM Sugar Beet benefits
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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 yesterday.

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 biotechnology.

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 yield.

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 Pidgeon.

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 common.

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 usefulness.

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."


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Last modified: September 20, 2006