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The final results of the GM farmscale evaluations, announced today, are a severe blow to the biotech industry, Friends of the Earth said today.

The results of the trials showed that growing GM winter oilseed rape led to

  • Fewer important food plants for insects and birds
  • An increase in grass weeds which farmers may have to tackle with more herbicides, which would further damage wildlife.

Friends of the Earth has also discovered that biotech giant, Bayer, has told the EU that it wants to withdraw its application to grow the GM winter oilseed rape trialled in the UK's GM farmscale evaluations. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has told Friends of the Earth that Bayer applied to the European Commission (EC) "reduce the scope of the application to import and processing" [1].The results of the crop trials of GM winter oilseed rape - the final results of the farm scale evaluations - are due to be revealed today (21 March).

Bayer told the EC that it wished to withdraw its application to grow the GM oilseed rape and only seek permission to import it into the EU for use in food and animal feed. There is widespread European opposition to the rape; Friends of the Earth discovered that 23 out of 25 EU countries, including the UK, objected to the GM crop being grown because of concerns about the impact on the environment and human health [2].

But, in a bizarre twist, the EC has refused to allow Bayer to alter its joint application (to grow the GM oil seed rape and import it for use in food and feed). A decision is likely to be taken later this year.

Clare Oxborrow, Friends of the Earth's GM campaigner said:

"These results are yet another major blow to the biotech industry. Growing GM winter oilseed rape would have a negative impact on farmland wildlife. No wonder Bayer tried to withdraw its application to grow GM winter oilseed rape. Almost every EU country has raised serious concerns about the impact that this crop could have on our environment and health. Bayer should now scrap the whole application - including its intention to import it into the EU as food.

"The farm scale evaluations only looked at a narrow range of concerns. They were not a comprehensive assessment of the risks of growing GM crops. The vast majority of consumers have made it clear that they do not want GM. The Government should pull the plug on this unnecessary and unpopular technology and invest in a truly sustainable farming future instead."

Growing GM oilseed rape would inevitably lead to the contamination of neighbouring crops and the environment. Research published by DEFRA has shown that GM oilseed rape pollen can be carried 26 kilometres, and in Canada, where GM oilseed rape has been grown for a number of years, organic oilseed rape production has been abandoned because of widespread contamination from GM crops.

The British public remains deeply opposed to GM crops. A Which? survey last year revealed that opposition had hardened since a similar study in 2002. Sixty one per cent said that they were concerned about the use of GM in food production (56 per cent in 2002) and 58 per cent said they try to avoid GM ingredients altogether (a 13 per cent increase).

The four -year GM farm scale evaluations [3] were ordered by the Government, following widespread public concern, to assess the impact on farmland wildlife of growing GM crops compared with conventional crops. They cost an estimated £5.5 million. The FSE results for GM maize, beet and spring oil seed rape were published in October 2003 [4]. GM oilseed rape and beet were judged to be more damaging to the environment than conventional counterparts, and Bayer abandoned plans to grow GM maize - claiming it was "commercially non-viable" [5] - after its crop was only given limited approval by the government.

Notes

[1] Email from DEFRA, Tuesday 1 March 2005:

"The notifier (Bayer) chose to reduce the scope of the application to import and processing after the sixty day period. However, the EU Commission's position is that the notifier cannot change the scope of the notification at this stage…."

[2] Friends of the Earth obtained the Member State comments on the GM application through a Freedom of Information request to DEFRA. Examples of comments from member states:

UK: "The UK Competent Authority agrees … that on the basis of the information provided in the dossier approval for cultivation should not be granted."
Austria: "No data/studies at all on possible effects on human health are provided."
Belgium: controlling gene flow will be "impracticable, hardly workable, and hard to control".
France: "the French Food Safety Agency considers that the safety of genetically modified rape Ms8xRf3 from the health point of view cannot be guaranteed."
Poland: "…granting any consent for growing this species in EU territory would be inappropriate."
Slovenia: "the gene flow from a cultivation could not be managed satisfactory, so to ensure existence of all different agricultural practices in EU, including organic farming. In the same way the gene flow to wild relatives would be impossible to prevent."
Italy: "The Italian National Competent Authority agrees … that no authorisation should be granted for the cultivation of the product under notification C/BE/96/01".
Norway: "we will not support consent for this notification if it is to cover cultivation
"Sweden retains objection to the culitivation of this oilseed rape"

[3] The Farm Scale Evaluations (FSEs) compared GM crop management with conventional crop management (which are themselves known to be harmful to wildlife and the environment). GM crops were not compared to organic farming, a system that has been shown to improve wildlife in the field.

The trials did not consider:

  • the development of herbicide tolerant oilseed rape volunteers and weeds,
  • impacts on wider soil ecology,
  • contamination of non-GM crops,
  • cross-pollination with wild plants.

Researchers have calculated that the farm scale evaluations can only detect differences of between 50 - 100% in changes to wildlife population sizes. Therefore, if smaller differences occurred between the GM and non-GM crops during the trials, they might not show up in the results because the trials were not sensitive enough to detect them with any certainty. In the case of the spring sown crops, the effects on biodiversity were very clear and surprisingly large. However, uncertain results for winter oilseed rape do not necessarily mean that no harm has occurred. In fact, evidence shows that differences as low as 13 per cent may be ecologically important for wildlife.

FSE briefing (PDF)

[4] GM crops: Blair who do you represent, the British people, or Bush and the multi-nationals?

[5] Biotech firm ditches GM maize plans


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Published by Friends of the Earth Trust