Prof Alan Gray, who heads the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, which meets for the first time in London today to discuss environmental safety of pilot trials of GM strawberries and oilseed rape, was cited as admitting yesterday that more than 120 species of "superweeds" had emerged worldwide, though as a result of conventional agriculture.
The story says Gray highlighted the problem of "superweeds" to illustrate how the GM furore had distracted attention from the key environmental issue of how to halt the decline in Britain's biodiversity - the number and range of countryside species - caused by intensive agriculture. Dozens of "superweeds" had emerged from the use of herbicides over the past three decades.
As susceptible weeds were wiped out by chemicals, only strains with natural herbicide resistant genes remained to multiply. Yet the impact of these weeds on the environment was unknown because conventional agriculture was under nothing like the same scrutiny as GM crops. Prof Gray was quoted as saying, "We are treating GM crops in a way we have never treated any other. We are looking at the safety of them in a way that we have never looked at other types of agriculture."
As one example, a former committee member voiced concerns that using a GM herbicide-resistant oilseed rape could allow a bacterial gene to "contaminate" wild habitats. The committee agreed that there were weeds, notably wild turnip, capable of crossing with GM oilseed rape to spread the pesticide resistance gene.
Studies suggested that it happened infrequently. But Prof Gray's committee believed that the theoretical risk could be dealt with by farmers because they already had to deal with "superweeds" resulting from conventional agriculture.
Traditional methods had drastic effects on bird diversity, notably the declining populations of turtle dove, reed bunting, sparrows and skylarks. Reasons were likely to be different for different birds but one factor was the planting of winter crops, instead of spring crops, that removed weeds and insects from the food chain of some birds.
Gray was further quoted as saying, "No one sat down in a committee and said, 'What would be the impact of winter crops?' Maybe we should have." Environmentalists have voiced fears that bees could spread GM pollen and genes to other plants.
Prof Gray said the problem was faced by conventional agriculture. Plant breeders separated crops by a given distance to reduce "gene flow" to ensure 99.9 per cent pure varieties and there was no reason for GM crops to be treated differently. An oilseed rape containing herbicide resistance genes had been developed by alternative methods to GM. If the non-GM herbicide resistant crop were introduced, "it would be possible to introduce a lot of these herbicide resistance genes into the market without any fuss, providing safe use of the herbicide was approved". Prof Gray would not be drawn on the question of whether all conventional crops passed the same regulatory process as GM varieties. But he quoted Prof Derek Burke, former head of a food advisory committee, who said that the potato would have been banned if his committee had been present when Sir Walter Raleigh imported the first one. Prof Gray was quoted as saying, "It is a nasty, poisonous plant you have to prepare carefully that is full of glycoalkaloids, horrible substances which can make you very unwell."
Although GM crops were better regulated than the rest of agriculture, they had become a target to unify a range of concerns: "multi-nationals, profits, government, white-coated scientists doing unpleasant things and so on".
GM crops were being blamed for a malaise already present in modern agriculture.
The revamp of his committee will shift the emphasis from molecular biology to ecology, wildlife/biodiversity and farming practice to a more strategic view of environmental impact. Gray was further quoted as saying, "What we are focusing on is science-based risk assessment." A sub-group was studying the effects of the farm scale trials of GM crops on biodiversity. Prof Gray believed that British GM crop regulation was the toughest in the world. The regime "is incredibly thorough". He said: "It is the most regulated aspect of our agriculture and is admired by many other countries."
There were expectations that a herbicide-tolerant oilseed rape had been due for commercial release in 1994. Prof Gray said: "Five years later and the Government's own advisers are still saying hang on." A pressing issue would be how to restore public confidence in GM crops against hostility and environmentalists' attempts to vandalise trials.
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Last Updated on 9/17/99
By Karen Lutz