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A follow-up to the UK's major trial of genetically modified crops, the Farm
Scale Evaluations, finds that impacts on wildlife can persist for two years,
September 2005 by Richard Black.
The original trial found that spring GM rape and sugar beet were harsher
than their conventional equivalents in the short term, while GM maize was
The new study shows the same pattern at two years for rape and maize.
The British government has welcomed the findings, which it says "provide
important information" on GM crops.
The new information relates to three of the four crops studied in the Farm
Scale Evaluations (FSEs): spring oilseed rape, sugar beet and maize.
Initial results on these crops were published in October 2003; data on the
fourth crop, winter oilseed rape, was published separately in March 2005.
"The new study confirms our impression of what would happen when we released
the initial results," said Les Firbank, of the Centre for Ecology and
Hydrology in Lancaster, the FSE project co-ordinator.
"We did expect the differences to persist, and I don't think it will affect
any decision on approving GM crops," he told the BBC News website.
This follow-up, published in the Royal Society's journal Biology Letters,
did not look at insects and birds as the initial study had done.
Instead, it confined itself to monitoring the weed seedbank - the number and
diversity of weed seeds left in the soil, which will be food for insects and
It found that the result seen at one year for maize, with the GM crop
leaving a greater seedbank than conventional varieties, persisted through
the second season after planting.
The converse result for spring rape - GM cultivation worse than
conventional - also persisted.
"After the trial season ended, the land returned to normal management and
farmers managed the two halves in the same way," said Dr Firbank.
"So we would expect differences to persist because weeds are controlled by
the farmers anyway; if you did see a big increase in weeds, you would expect
the farmer to do something about it."
However, areas which had been sown with GM beet and had initially seen a
fall in the seedbank compared with conventional cultivation appeared to
mount a partial recovery.
The initial trial result on maize had proved controversial because of
studies indicating that the herbicide used on the conventional varieties,
atrazine, is associated with a range of toxicities; its use is now banned in
most EU countries, though not yet in the UK.
The scientific team points out that any results seen in the studies are
direct consequences of the herbicides used rather than the plants
themselves, although these GM varieties are specifically created to be used
with proprietary herbicides.
The results are unlikely to have an impact on the broader question of
whether genetically modified crops are grown in the UK.
Following the initial results from the FSEs, the government indicated that
it would approve cultivation of the GM maize used in the trial, the Bayer
product Chardon LL, and reject the others.
However, Bayer then decided not to press ahead with a UK introduction for
The legislative situation regarding GM crops across Europe has since become
In principle, once one European Union member has approved a crop, it is
automatically approved in all other member states.
However, some countries have vetoed certain crops; and the EU Council of
Ministers decided in June not to remove that right, even though it may be
illegal under European law.
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