Irritation grows over thwarted GM crop trials
By Andrew Blake
FRUSTRATION that the potential progress offered by genetically modified crops is being put in jeopardy erupted last week, reflecting growing annoyance across the industry.
Unjustified organic rule changes and vandalism of trials threaten to stop scientists making proper independent GM research assessments, delegates at an Arable Research Institutes Association meeting at IACR-Rothamsted heard.
IACR director Ian Crute referred to the recent spraying off of a Wiltshire GM oilseed rape trial. Such trials are vital to develop a technology which will have a significant role in creating economically, environmentally and socially-sustainable agriculture, he said. "The need for this work to continue is absolutely essential."
Glos farmer John Tingey wanted to know how the trial could have been considered a threat to organic beans grown on the same farm. It was impossible for the two crops to cross-pollinate, he pointed out.
"Basically what has happened is that there has been a change in the regulations from the Soil Association, which stopped the trial even though the risk was absolutely zero," replied Prof Crute. "It is purely dogma."
It was inevitable that genes from GM crops would move within the environment. "The question is: So what?," he stressed.
Recent bad publicity has made it hard to find GM trial sites and created insurance problems, added Frank Oldfield, chairman of the HGCAs oilseeds research and development committee.
Glos farmer and bee-keeper Julian Hasler questioned Soil Association insistence that GM crops be grown no closer than six miles from farms wishing to stay organic. "Bees only fly a mile and a half," he claimed.
Longer-term work to assess the significance of volunteers or feral rape which might develop multiple herbicide tolerance could be needed to help growers management methods, Prof Crute suggested. "The risk is all being carried by farmers at the moment. I believe there is no risk to human health or the broad environment."
David Brightman, former farmers weekly barometer farmer and chairman of the NFUs pesticides working group and Bob Fiddaman, the unions representative on SCIMAC, echo the ARIA meeting views.
"My frustration is with the organic movement," says Mr Brightman. "I have no objection to organic producers. But if they continue to queer the pitch on false grounds we should point out the pitfalls of their production systems. For example there is an increased risk of mycotoxins in most organic products." Copper sulphate, a class one poison, is still permitted in organic systems, he adds.
Mr Fiddaman is equally annoyed at the disproportionate influence organic growers and anti-GM lobbies seem to be having on media coverage. "I want the ability to see the trials carried forward to get real evidence to show whether there is a risk."
With regard to the Wilts trial, Mr Fiddaman believes those advising that the land could become contaminated unless the crop was destroyed could be misguided. "They could be shooting themselves in the foot. It is very unlikely that all the seed will have germinated, so there are bound to be volunteers there in future." *
Poll claims pesticide tax wont meet aims
AS next weeks deadline for responses to the governments pesticide tax consultation approaches, an opinion poll of over 3000 farmers suggests environmental benefits are unlikely.
According to 83% of survey respondents a tax will not affect the amount of chemical used. Many claimed it could actually harm the environment as farmers switch to older, cheaper chemistry.
"This is another back-door tax proposed by people who know precious little about farmers, or the problems that nature is constantly throwing our way," says Notts farmer Roger Oates, who participated in the Cyanamid Agriculture survey on its agriCentre website.
A study commissioned by the National Farmers Union and the British Agrochemicals Association shows chemical use is already minimised and suggests an 89% tax rate would only cut use by one-fifth.
That is in sharp contrast to the governments report, which claimed the same reduction in use could be achieved with only 30% tax. It also suggested the loss of 2,000 jobs and 300 farm businesses was a price worth paying for what it believed would be substantial environmental benefits, plus £131m revenue for the treasury.
"A tax is an unacceptably crude and simplistic argument, which would damage livelihoods and further weaken our international competitive position," says NFU crop science adviser, Chris Wise.
"Economic consequences are clear, it is the environmental benefits that are questionable. The measures already in place – policies, industry initiatives and the very strict regulatory framework, which is among the toughest in Europe – are sufficient to bring about the same outcome."
Tax plans ignore industry-wide environmental initiatives introduced in recent years, agrees Stephen Dann, marketing director of Cyanamid Northern Europe. "Today, environmental impact is one of the first attributes to be assessed when investigating new molecules, and theres clearly a trend towards lower rates of use."
Tax-free black market imports are a further concern. "I believe a tax could worsen, rather than improve, the environmental situation, especially if it leads to a black market in imported agrochemicals used without the professional advisory support of an agronomist," says Stephen Harrison, a council member of the Association of Independent Crop Consultants.
• An announcement on the pesticide tax is expected in the autumn budget statement. *
IOB approvals list
THREE newcomers are among few changes on the Institute of Brewings list of approved malting barleys for 1999-2000.
Winter type Pearl, promising improved brewhouse extract, and spring variety Decanter both come on to the list with Provisional (1) Approval for all regions. Century, expected to be of particular interest to distillers, gets the same tag for the north-east/north-west only.
Chalice, provisionally approved for the northern regions last year, is the first beneficiary of the new scheme, staying on the list with Provisional (2) Approval.
Spring varieties Alexis and Cooper, deemed outclassed, have been removed as has winter type Rifle. The latter received full approval last year but did not match expectations, says the IOB. *
By measuring the individual lodging characteristics of wheat and barley varieties in the field Harper Adams researcher Mitch Crooks is helping Novartis develop variety-specific growth regulator recommendations.