Friday September 1 2:40 AM ET
Biotech Crops May Reduce Bird Food
By PAUL RECER, AP Science Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - A British study suggests that the use of a new
biotech crop could lead to a steep decline in the population of the skylark, a
tuneful bird beloved in English poetry.
The study, appearing Friday in the journal Science, claims that if most British
farmers use a genetically altered sugar beet it would deprive the skylark of
weed seeds, a main source of food, and cause the bird numbers to decline by
up to 90 percent.
American agricultural researchers, however, say that conclusions of the study
are ``simplistic'' and highly questionable.
William J. Sutherland of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England,
said he and colleagues believe that gene-altered, herbicide-resistant sugar
beets will allow British farmers to use more powerful plant-killing sprays and
more effectively control weeds in their fields.
But the weeds, said Sutherland, produce seeds that are a mainstay of the
``If you measure the abundance of skylarks in some fields, one finds that
could be explained by the abundance of seeds in those fields,'' said
Sutherland. Using the herbicide-resistant beets ``means more herbicides,
which means fewer weeds, fewer seeds and fewer skylarks,'' he said.
The finding strikes a strong emotional cord among bird lovers in the United
Kingdom, where genetically altered food crops already are viewed with
The skylark has ordinary plumage - brown with tan and white stippling - but
it is celebrated in poetry for its crystal song, often trilled by a love-struck
male hovering high above the ground. Poet Percy Bysshe Shelley begins his
ode ``To a Skylark'' with the famous words: ``Hail to thee, blithe spirit!'' and
tells of the joy of hearing the bird's ``shrill delight.''
Despite its popularity, the skylark's population in England has declined by 52
percent since 1970 because of intensified farming, Sutherland said. He said
the use of gene-altered beets threatens to accelerate that decline.
But American researchers strongly rejected the skylark study over what call a
lack of thoroughness and a heavy dependence on theory and assumptions.
``This research is a bit simplistic and it does not help to resolve the issues,''
said Bill Palmer, a research scientist at the Tall Timbers Research Station in
Palmer said the British study is based on a computer model and lacks proof
that can only come from field research. He said some American research has
shown that growing herbicide-resistant crops actually provides more food for
Palmer said farmers using the crops tend to leave more stubble on the surface
of their fields, since they don't have to plow to control weeds, and that this
promotes an increase in worms and other insects that birds eat.
But Palmer admitted that ``the jury is still out'' about how genetically altered
crops will affect the environment.
In a Science analysis of the study, Les G. Firbank of the Centre for Ecology
and Hydrology in England and Frank Forcella of the University of Minnesota
said that the conclusion by Sutherland and his colleagues ``is questionable in
light of experiences with growing (gene-altered herbicide-resistant) maize,
soybeans, canola and sugar beet in the United States.''
The biotechnology industry has altered a number of food and fiber plants by
inserting genes that provide some apparent benefit. For instance, some types
of corn have been altered to naturally produce a toxin that kills insects that
feed on the plant, thus reducing the need for insecticide spraying. A rice strain
has been altered to provide more vitamin A, which is seriously lacking in
some Asian diets.
The beets cited by Sutherland and his colleagues have been genetically
altered to be resistant to herbicides. This allows farmers to use more
powerful plant-killing chemicals to control weeds because the spray will not
harm the crops.
At least two studies have shown that pollen from the gene-altered corn is
toxic to monarch butterfly larvae that feed on milkweeds growing beside corn
fields. Others have questioned the proven safety of genes that modify the
nutrition of certain plans.
These concerns have prompted England and some other countries in Europe
to severely restrict growing and selling of gene-altered farm crops.