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Checkbiotech: Crop management gets vital role in transgenic debate
Posted by: DR. RAUPP & madora (IP Logged)
Date: December 02, 2004 10:18AM ;

Genetically modified strains have been evaluated in 'real' farming
situations, 2004 by Michael Hopkin .

Crops that are genetically modified to be resistant to herbicides could
make weeds easier to manage without destroying valuable biodiversity. So
says the first trial to compare transgenic and conventional crops farmed in

The four-year study, called Botanical and Rotational Implications of
Genetically Modified Herbicide Tolerance (BRIGHT), involved five different
agricultural research stations around Britain. The researchers alternated
between transgenic sugar beet or winter oilseed rape and conventional wheat
or barley on the same plots of land. Farmers use these patterns of crop
rotation to preserve nutrients in the soil or disrupt pest life cycles.

The scientists found that the number of weed seeds on the plots, a measure
of biodiversity, increased over the four years in all cases. This shows,
they argue, that although weed plants themselves can be controlled,
transgenic crops do not necessarily damage diversity. This partly echoes the
message of the British government's Farm Scale Evaluations, the results of
which were published last year, but which gave mixed reports as to whether
transgenic crops deplete diversity.

Cheap options

BRIGHT also assessed which farming strategies were best at killing weeds. On
50% of study plots, growing oilseed rape that had been engineered to resist
the wide-ranging herbicide glyphosate, also called Roundup, gave the lowest
weed numbers throughout the four years. Using such rape could make it easier
and cheaper for farmers to keep weeds down, the BRIGHT team said at a press
conference in London on 29 November. However, it cautions that in other
fields, neither conventional nor transgenic crops were consistently better
for battling weeds. Their results have been published online (1) .

Transgenic crops could potentially represent a cheap option. Weedkillers for
conventional oilseed rape cost ?60 (US$113) per hectare, compared with ?16
for the Roundup-tolerant crop and ?40 for a different transgenic strain that
is resistant to the herbicide glufosinate, reports Peter Lutman of
Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, UK. Lutman led the oilseed-rape portion of
the study. He points out that these figures do not include the costs of
seeds: transgenic strains, if approved, are likely to be subject to
technology costs set by the manufacturers.

Holistic approach

The results underline the fact that it is the way the crop is farmed, not
the crop itself, that determines its effect on biodiversity. "The impact is
not due to the crop, it's due to the management of the crop," says Jeremy
Sweet, the project's scientific coordinator.

"This asks for a degree of joined-up thinking about how we govern these
crops. It's not just picking a genetically modified crop and saying 'this is
good, that one's bad'," Lutman adds.

The BRIGHT team does warn that seeds left over from transgenic sugar beet
would be impossible to separate from normal sugar beet grown subsequently on
the same land. Farmers would therefore struggle to stay under the 0.9%
contamination limit required for a crop to be sold in Europe as 'not
genetically modified'.

Regulation issues

The team hopes that European governments will take notice of their work when
deciding how to regulate transgenic crops. Despite a recent European Union
directive calling on member states to impose regulations on the crops,
France has declared that it will not draft any legislation until next

Meanwhile, Germany is embroiled in a dispute between opponents of transgenic
crops and advocates of the technology. Opponents have welcomed legislation
approved by the German parliament on 26 November that will hold GM farmers
liable for any contamination of their non-GM neighbours' fields.

But advocates counter that such stringent regulations will foment anti-GM
feeling and are unnecessary, citing researchers' claims made at a press
conference two days earlier that transgenic corn fields can 'coexist'
alongside conventional ones without significant contamination.

Such debates are in danger of missing the point, warns Sweet. Investigators
need to take a holistic approach to evaluating biodiversity, he says, rather
than simply considering the effect of a single crop strain or weed-killing
chemical. "We want people to look at the whole farming system," he says.

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