Possible impact on wildlife revealed by GM crops paper

The Government's advisory committee on genetically modified crops has admitted there may be risks as well as benefits for wildlife from such crops, and endorsed the Government's intention that any introduction of such crops should be carried out slowly and carefully.

In a discussion paper published on February 18, ACRE, the statutory Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, has drawn attention to the wider implications for farmland wildlife of the widespread introduction of GM crops.

The DETR says the paper provides a foundation for discussion. It explains how GM crops are currently controlled and sets out the potential disadvantages and advantages of GM crops against the background of the declining farmland wildlife.

Environmental group Friends of the Earth says the discussion paper, The Commercial Use of Genetically Modified Crops in the United Kingdom: the Potential Wider Impact on Farmland Wildlife

shows that the DETR, in common with English Nature, has continuing reservations over the possible impacts of GM crop use on farmland wildlife.

The paper states that “there are concerns that the current regulatory regime may fail to identify long term indirect effects on biodiversity resulting from commercial use of GM crops in agriculture, if particular management methods, such as herbicide use for weed control, are encouraged”.

The paper goes on to observe that “whether or not the crop itself was considered to pose a low risk to human health or the environment, widespread commercial uptake by farmers could result in declines in certain wildlife species”.

The paper states that “decisions could be made on the basis of how good we think the GM organism could be rather than on the basis of what the risks are” and says that “there is no strategic planning to identify, with the industry, farmers and conservation groups, where certain types of GMOs could play a positive role in enhancing biodiversity in agriculture”.

The paper notes that GM crops might undermine the UK Government’s policy to protect wildlife. It is feared by environmental groups that species targeted for special protection, such as skylark and grey partridge, could face further reductions because of GM crop use.

Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth said: “If ever there was a case for a five year breathing space to consider the potential impacts of GM crops on our wildlife, then it is made in this paper.”

Professor John Beringer, Chairman of ACRE, said the government had asked the committee to give advice on how these issues could be addressed in the approvals process. He said: “My Committee has for some time been concerned that these wider issues have not been properly addressed within the regulatory process.

“In response, last year the Government extended our remit to tackle these concerns and my committee will use this discussion paper as a starting point to address all sides of these important issues.”

GM crops are, at present, only planted in the UK for trial purposes. None are grown for commercial use. However, there has been concern over the last 12 months about the effects GM crops could have if planted on a larger scale.

In October 1998 Environment Minister Michael Meacher and Agriculture Minister Jeff Rooker announced that farm-scale evaluations of three GM crops would begin in spring 1999. These studies will compare the effects of the management of GM herbicide crops and equivalent non-GM crops on farmland wildlife.

If they proceed the first GM crops will be introduced against an existing decline in farmland wildlife in the UK and which the Government seeks to halt and where possible reverse. English Nature, the Government’s advisors on wildlife conservation are concerned that the introduction of some GM crops into commercial agriculture may prejudice commitments to reverse declines in farmland wildlife.

Following the publication of the report, the UK Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) called a press briefing on February 17 1999 to “clear up Friends of the Earth’s misinterpretation of the report.”

The following morning, The Guardian quoted Meacher as saying that “until we have clear scientific evidence about the impact on the environment we will continue to prevent the commercial planting of these crops as long as necessary.”

A DETR spokesperson told edie this did not mean the Government has declared a moratorium on GM crops and said Meacher’s remarks refer to existing Government policies. The spokesperson insisted that commercial planting of GM crops would only go ahead once they had been subjected to voluntary farm scale testing.

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