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Wednesday, 26 June, 2002, 17:49 GMT 18:49 UK
Weeds fight back
GM crops
Weeds fight back

You may have worries about genetically modified foods. But the good thing is that at least they avoid the need to tip loads of poison on the land, right?


While Britain conducts so-called field trials, in America they're growing vast tonnages of genetically modified crops.

And, as our Science Editor has discovered, they've found that they still need to use industrial quantities of a herbicide which is so toxic it's banned in some countries. Furthermore, the weeds are now fighting back.

Susan Watts reported.

Local sporting hero, Michael Owen, has already done a full days work at the crop science research labs he runs in America's mid-west. Now at 10.00 at night he's playing softball, but he says, when it comes to competition, American farmers play hardball.

You look around here, and everybody is trying to do something, and it's frankly more fun to win than to lose.

The Professor and his team-mates wear their ages on their shirt backs with pride. He is wearing 51, but some on his side go up to 72. It's the never say die attitude that America is famous for. A will to win that's survived from the time of the pioneers.

It's a past celebrated at Iowa's Living History farm museum, a time when the pioneers conquered the land with the best technology available. Horse-drawn cultivators were the latest in weed control then, and there is no stopping progress.

Today American farmers have embraced GM crops with just the same pioneering spirit. Now there are hundreds of square miles of genetically modified maize or corn as they call it here, although the locals seem more concerned about the smell from neighbouring pig farms.

It's different in the UK. BSE and foot-and-mouth have created a public distrust of new technologies, especially in Agriculture. Here at the Dairy Research Centre Dr Phipps has been feeding GM crops to his cows. As Britain awaits the results of four years of field trials to study the real-life impact of genetically modified crops. It's decision time. To commercialise GM crops or not?

(Reading University)
By the end of September this crop of course will be seven foot tall.

Dr Phipps thinks we should go ahead. His department has research contracts wit Government, small local farming companies and large biotech firms such as Aventis and Monsanto. He says GM crops will allow farmers to opt for more benign herbicides, dropping more persistent chemicals like atrazine, which is widely frowned upon. Several European countries have recently banned it.

Atrazine is relatively cheap, it's easy to use, but it does have very definite problems in that there is the potential that it can be¿can go down through the soil and possibly pollute watercourses.

The biotech companies made the GM future sound rosy.

"The latest revolution in farming techniques, the products of agricultural biotechnology".

You spray the crop and weeds with their herbicides, such as Roundup or Liberty. But only the weeds die because the crops have added genes which protect them.

The introduction of GM crops brings into use contact herbicides which are less toxic, non-residual, and they do not pass down into ground water.

So the message in Britain from the enthusiasts is that a GM future will free up from dangerous herbicides.

It's coming up to midnight in Iowa, and the sporting Professor has now donned a number 35 shirt and a pair of skates. In the rink he is on the to the next event of the evening, but back at his day job he has found practical problems with GM, crops which mean if they do get the go ahead in Britain it could prove a hollow victory.

At 9.00 the next morning Dr Owen is back in the weed control lab. He is not anti-GM technology, conducting studies for many of the better- known companies. But he and his colleagues across America have found that in practice the Liberty GM technology from Aventis will not get rid of all weeds in maize without repeated doses.

The great myth of weed management and the star that growers want is to come in early in the season, make one application of something, the silver bullet, as it were, and have to do nothing else. What is interesting is that because of the biology and adaptability of weeds, it's never going to work. We are seeing two and possibly three applications necessary.

In fact, Aventis in America has quietly accepted that GM farmers aren't satisfied with Liberty alone, putting on sale a product called Liberty ATZ. This is a mix of a little bit of Liberty and a lot of atrazine, the residual chemical that's banned in most of Europe. Michael Owen says this combination has now displaced the original environmentally friendly option for Liberty corn growers.

The majority of the farmers see the advantage of having the atrazine included in the pre-packaged mix. I don't know the exact percentage, but I'd say it is easily more than 75%, probably closer to 90%.

We headed north out of Ames. Aventis was taken over by Bayer Crop Science earlier this month, and we knew a whistle stop tour by a head office team had reached Story City. Our requests for an interview were rejected, but we tracked down the visitors to an experimental plot outside town. Most of the group disappeared into their cars when we arrived, but local rep Dennis Campbell agreed to tell us why farmers here are opting for Liberty ATZ.

(Bayer Crop Science)
You can go with two passes of a totally benign herbicide, like Liberty. If you want to put in some residual and go out with a Liberty and a residual product like atrazine in the tank you can do that in one pass. So really it is up to the grower.

So given the choice it appears farmers are opting for the easy but more toxic mix of Liberty and atrazine together. But as biotech companies move their crops from experimental plot to the commercial markets of new countries like Britain, Professor Owen says he has found their message tends to be overly optimistic on weed control.

The industry, almost as a blanket statement, will guarantee their product performance to be perfect, and that's ecologically and environmentally impossible.

And he is working on a second practical problem, weeds that are becoming resistant to GM herbicides, such as Monsanto's Roundup.

In this area we have the growth chambers, where we're trying to propagate some of the weeds that are resistant to herbicides.

Roundup crops use a herbicide called glyphosate which attacks a target site in a plant. The GM crops have altered genes so the herbicide can't work. The problem is the weeds are adopting a similar strategy.

Most of the weeds are like this and they die. That is what they are supposed to do. What we have found from grower complaints is that there are rare individuals that don't appear to respond to the herbicide, that don't appear to be sensitive. What we are trying to do here is to determine why they don't die. On this side, we have those that are resistant, and they said it couldn't happen, and already we are seeing very good evidence that indeed resistance to glyphosate can occur.

In the UK protest against the field trials came to a head with lord Melchett's infamous trashing of the Aventis GM maize crop at Ling in Norfolk.

The protesters have repeatedly accused the companies of deception, and in an inquiry over recent weeks into whether the maize should become the first GM crop to get a UK seed listing, Aventis repeated its claim for Liberty. They say it "¿has a significantly better environmental profile than atrazine", and, "¿is not as mobile in the soil as atrazine, and so will not have the same effects on watercourses as atrazine".

They don't say that in the US more and more farmers are opting for the Aventis mix of its glufosinate-based Liberty weed killer plus atrazine. That news comes as a shock to British GM campaigners, both for and against.

It is somewhat surprising, I think, because glufosinate and the Roundup ready mixtures can provide very good herbicide control in maize crops. However, there may be circumstances, slow growth in the early spring, or for ease of management farmers might still wish to use a little bit of atrazine in a mixture.

(Friends of the Earth)
It is a surprise, really. What we've heard in this country from Aventis is that the whole purpose of GM maize is to remove atrazine from the market. Historically, atrazine has been a problem for the rivers and the water industry, contaminating water, and it's also a highly toxic substance. It's a Red List substance for the EU. It is also now classified as an endocrine- disrupting chemical, which means it can interfere with the body's hormone systems at very low concentrations.

Aventis told us in a statement that they have no data on the proportion of Liberty farmers in America now using the mix, and that they never stated that "¿in all cases, all climates, all soil types, and with all weed pressures", Liberty would be the only solution. The company adds that comparing intensive farming in the US with the UK situation is not valid, and that they "..have no intention to sell Liberty ATZ in the UK".

The American experience could prove awkward for the Prime Minister. In his recent science matters speech at the Royal Society, Tony Blair urged the British public to drop its sceptical approach to developments such as GM crop technology.

We could choose to be a nation at ease with radical knowledge, not fearful of the future, a culture that values a pragmatic evidence-based approach to new opportunities.

Crop protesters who opted for direct action angered for more moderate Government advisers, like English Nature, who prefer a science-based approach, backing the farm-scale trials. The latest evidence has prompted a shift in their position.

(English Nature)
If we are having new information coming from the United States that raises questions about kinds of herbicides that might be used in future, then we need to look at that evidence, as well as the field-scale trials in this country, assess it all then make a decision based on the best possible grounds.

Where does that leave us with regards to the moratorium?

I thin that it's going to take some time to make these decisions, so it might be wise to extend that delay in commercialisation to enable the right decisions to be made.

So far the American experience seems to have been largely ignored as British campaigners on both sides of the GM debate prefer to posture rather than heed its lessons.

This transcript was produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.

Newsnight's Susan Watts
"The biotech companies made the GM future sound rosy"
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18 Jun 02 | Politics
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