GM beet benefits wildlife

NEW research from Broom‘s Barn Research Station has shown that GM herbicide-tolerant sugar beet can be managed to the benefit of wildlife and the environment.

Previous work, including the government‘s Farm Scale Evaluation trials, suggested that GM sugar beet, while providing environmental benefits early in the season, would reduce weed seed numbers in late season, depriving birds of autumn food sources.

The authors of the new study, published in Proceedings B of the Royal Society, argue that an “extremely simple” management system can help increase yields and enhance weed seed production up to sixteen-fold compared to conventional systems.

The new system involved applying the first spray fairly early and omitting the second spray.

This, the authors point out, also has the benefit of making additional cost and pesticide savings on top of what they describe as “the already large savings compared to conventional practice”.

The authors suggest that the legitimate concerns raised about indirect environmental effects of GM sugar beet on weeds, insects and birds can be resolved by regulation requiring these appropriate new management approaches.

“This work adds a new perspective to future discussions about obtaining the benefits from this specific GM crop that the public, environmentalists and farmers could all be interested to exploit to the benefit of the countryside,” said John Pidgeon, director of Broom‘s Barn and one of the authors of the new study.

The research was funded in 2001 and 2002 by the Association of Biotechnology Companies.

Anti-GM group Five Year Freeze argued that the study revealed that the GM sugar beet management approaches so far proposed fail to provide weeds and weed seeds for farmland in every season.

FYF director Pete Riley said: “The choices offered by GM sugar beet cropping appear to offer farmland birds three options: insufficient food through out the year, early season food or autumn food. This is bad news for resident birds which need food all year round.”

“Broom‘s Barn‘s proposal makes sugar beet more complicated, and they neglect to tell us how growing regimes will be monitored and enforced and crucially who will pay for these essential requirements.

“We doubt that this last-ditch attempt to save GM sugar beet will have much credibility with regulators or farmers,” Mr Riley said.