Green light for transgenic crop

Government advisers give genetically modified maize the thumbs up.

14 January 2004


British farmers could be free to sow genetically modified (GM) maize seeds this spring. A government advisory committee said this Tuesday that the crop doesn't have a harmful impact on biodiversity if it is sprayed with the right herbicides.

The committee also said that appropriate crop management techniques could eliminate the harmful effects on insects and weeds associated with two other GM crops under the scrutiny of scientists.

The advice won't come as a surprise to researchers, as it simply follows the results of the farm-scale evaluations that were published last October - a three-year investigation of the impact of GM maize, spring oilseed rape and beet on the biodiversity of British farmland. The report from the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE) translates that science into formal advice for the government.

When the results of the farm-scale trials were first revealed, they were widely interpreted by the media as showing that GM crops are 'bad' for the environment. But the negative impacts on biodiversity were caused entirely by the herbicides used with the crops.

Trials with oilseed rape and beet, for example, involved several doses of a powerful herbicide that killed many insects and weeds. But in the maize trial, the non-GM crops were sprayed with a powerful herbicide called atrazine, which killed more wildlife than the gentler herbicide used on the GM crop.

The committee now points out that farmers could counteract the effects of some herbicides by, for example, providing space between rows of crops for weeds to grow. "There may be viable mitigation measures that could be used by farmers to offset any adverse effects," says the ACRE report.

But it's not all good news for GM. Atrazine is currently being phased out by the European Union. ACRE members say further work will need to be done on GM maize to test how it fares against non-GM crops treated with the gentler, replacement herbicides - the relative benefit seen in the initial trial for GM maize may disappear.

The British government says that it will respond to ACRE's advice within the next six weeks. It already has a report, delivered last July, detailing other scientific concerns associated with the use of GM crops. Its pending decision about whether to allow the growth of these crops will be watched with interest by the rest of Europe.


© Nature News Service / Macmillan Magazines Ltd 2004