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Too Dull a Message

- Saturday October 18, 2003

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David Walker
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The British press and media, looking for something spectacular from the report on Farm Scale Evaluation of genetically modified crops in the UK, seemed to miss the implication of the findings. (470 words)

Headlines messages varied from the death knell for genetically modified crops from those newspapers which have been actively campaigning against this biotechnology to the political implication that any decision, which either way will be difficult for the government, is likely to be deferred until after the next general election which is likely to be in 2005 or later.

The report identified loss of bio diversity in terms of some high profile insects for genetically modified sugar beet and oilseed rape but gains for genetically modified maize. In all three cases the insects studied benefited from weedier crops. The study reports and news release stressed that this had nothing to do with the breeding techniques used to produce the varieties seeded, but reflected the effectiveness of the use of herbicides to control weeds.

This was clearly too dull a message to sell newspaper or hold television audiences.

In the absense of any sustainable scientific case against genetically modified crops, further delay represents a loss to UK society in terms of benefits from the application of a potentially very useful technology. This aside, however, the findings of the report have welcome implications for both the government and those awaiting adoption of the technology.

For the government it provides a ready excuse to delay what at this time would certainly be a politically damaging and divisive decision. Indeed the original decision to hold the trials may have been to avoid such a decision more than four years ago. The excuse is likely to be that the manner in which herbicides are applied to the crop needs reviewing to avoid unnecessarily weed free crops.

Such a review would surely highlight, in a way that conventional promotion is not able to, the very environmentally positive potential of the herbicides glyphosate or glufosinate-ammonium relative to other herbicides when used in combination with crops bred to resist them. With the red herring of the genetic engineering used for this breeding fried, attention could be focus on the benefits of environmentally sensitive agronomic techniques, including delayed herbicide application, the use of environmental strips and the like.

It would be logical then to expect an environmental imperative for the release of genetically modified crops to flow from such a review. Unfortunately significant vested interests opposed to genetically modified crops have developed in the UK over the years of high profile debate and mere environmental considerations may not be sufficient to over come them. They may be no more willing to smell the roses after such a review than they have been following the publication of the findings of the recently completed Farm Scale Evaluation.

David Walker

October 18, 2003

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