Maize dismays as GM crop given go-ahead
On 9th March Secretary of State for the Environment Margaret Beckett approved the commercial planting of a genetically modified (GM) fodder maize crop, T25 Chardon LL, in the UK.
As Mrs Beckett delivered the news to the House of Commons, Friends of the Earth gathered on the College Green, outside the Houses of Parliament, accusing Tony Blair of ignoring the considerable scientific uncertainty over and overwhelming public opposition to GM crops.
Right about now youre probably thinking oh, whats the point?, but be assured, this is not the end of the GM campaign.
For a start, GM oilseed rape and beets, the two other crops grown as part of the Governments four-year Farm Scale Evaluations (FSEs), were not approved. Furthermore, before GM maize can be sold to farmers and grown it must be added to the National List of Varieties or Seed List. This requires permission from not only the UK Government, but the devolved governments of Wales and Scotland, who have the power to block any seed listing for the whole of the UK.
Wales is thought to be still holding out against GM but on 18th March the Scottish Parliament voted to approve Chardon LL by a single vote.
If the Government does decide to add Chardon LL to the Seed List then we can pursue a legal challenge through the National Plant Varieties and Seeds Tribunal. A similar thing happened in 2000 when, following two years of National List Trials to compare GM with conventional maize seeds, more than 220 individuals and 60 organisations presented the hearing with written and oral objections to Chardon LL being placed on the List.
Friends of the Earth has consistently criticised the poor quality of the scientific evidence used to obtain the marketing consent for T25 maize (of which Chardon LL is one variety), as revealed in the Seed List Hearings. Even though Chardon LL will end up as cattle feed, no feeding studies were carried out on cattle. Incidentally, milk from cows fed GM maize will not be labelled as GM, making a mockery of official promises to protect consumer choice.
The FSEs compared the wildlife impacts of the herbicide regimes used on conventional and GM crops. The weedkiller used on conventional maize in the tests, atrazine, is so dangerous that it will be banned in the EU from 2006. So its little wonder that the GM maize plot was found to have slightly more farmland wildlife in comparison. No comparable data exists for the herbicide that will replace atrazine.
Significantly, the GM maize in the FSE was not grown in a way that farmers seeking to maximise commercial yield rather than biodiversity would employ. There are doubts about whether the weed management approach used in the FSEs will be replicated if GM maize is grown commercially, because farmers will want greater control over weeds to ensure commercially viable yields. Maize is extremely susceptible to early weed competition, but Bayer advised some farmers to delay application of weedkiller to the GM fields. In short weeds were allowed to grow in the crop to make it look richer in biodiversity.
Unfortunately, there is no way of verifying this statistically, as the trials did not accurately measure yield or maturity (estimates of height, a poor indicator of yield, were taken instead).
On 5th March the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee's review of the FSEs concluded that no GM crop should be given commercial approval until new crop trials are carried out. This would delay commercial approval for at least three years.
The Committee described the scope of the FSEs as very narrow and the results as inadequate grounds on which to base a decision to proceed with commercial growing. The maize trials were based on an unsatisfactory, indeed invalid, comparison. The report also called for thorough research into the experience of GM crops in North America.
A decade of
A report published in February by Friends of the Earth International and launched at the United Nations talks on GM organisms, showed that 10 years after the first GM crop (a tomato) appeared in supermarkets, the biotech industry is still failing to deliver on its promises. Argentina is the worlds second largest producer of GM crops and yet millions of Argentinians face hunger and malnutrition. So much for feeding the world. In Europe, GM food has been removed from most supermarket shelves. Opinion polls report widespread distrust of GM among British consumers, while demand for organic food grows by 30% a year.
True, there is still no firm evidence that GM food is any worse for our health than conventionally-produced food (although adequate safety tests have yet to be conducted). What should concern us more is that GM technology lets transnational companies acquire a monopolistic ownership over what we eat. They control the GM process and its products at every stage.
The large-scale release of GM crops around the globe would increase the ecological vulnerability already associated with monoculture agriculture. But alternatives to GM are available. For instance, Aaron deGrassi, at the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University, last year discovered in Africa that conventional breeding and better ecological management produce far greater improvements in yields and at a fraction of the cost of the GM crops being developed there. But of course, conventional or organic techniques, which cannot be patented or monopolised, are of no interest to the biotech giants.
Friends of the Earth will continue to oppose the approval of GM maize. We believe that no GM crops should be grown, including further trials, until new the legal framework is in place to prevent contamination of organic and conventional crops and to make the biotech companies liable if things go wrong.
Maize has been shown to cross-pollinate over considerable distances, well beyond the maximum 200 metres used in the FSEs. Cross pollination is likely to occur regularly and be impossible to prevent, undermining the ability of farmers to produce for the GM-free or organic market.
With the support of Friends of the Earth, Gregory Barker MP has put forward a Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) Private Members Bill, which would introduce separation distances and times between GM crops and other crops, along with a strict liability code and liability funds to ensure that if organic or conventional crops are contaminated by GMOs, those affected can be reimbursed for their losses by the biotech industry.
The GMO Bill received its Second Reading in Parliament on 26th March 2004 but the Government is still refusing to give its backing to the Bill. Ask your MP to support the Bill at www.foe.co.uk/campaigns/real_food/press_for_change/gm_bill/index.html.