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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 May 2007, 16:52 GMT 17:52 UK
Farming 'needs GM-style reviews'
Field of rape seed in front of a power station
The costs and benefits of energy crops are not fully understood
All new farming methods, not just genetically modified (GM) crops, should be assessed for their potential impact on the environment, UK experts suggest.

Government advisors on GM plants said that while GM technology was subjected to close scrutiny, there was no similar system for conventional practices.

The impacts on the land, as well as the economic benefits, should be understood before being widely adopted, they argued.

The recommendations were made in a report into agriculture's footprint.

'Extremely timely'

The findings, published by a sub-group of the Advisory Committee of Releases to the Environment (Acre), are based on data gathering during four-year Farm-Scale Evaluations (FSEs) into the impact of GM herbicide tolerant crops.

"Field studies have shown that the environmental impact of changes in agricultural management can be at least as significant as those associated with GM crops," the authors wrote.

It became obvious to many of us that agriculture itself would be facing new challenges in the 21st Century
Professor Chris Pollock,
Acre chairman
Chris Pollock, Acre's chairman, described the study as "extremely timely".

"During the time we were working on this report, it became obvious to many of us that agriculture itself would be facing new challenges in the 21st Century," Professor Pollock said.

He listed increases in population, greater prosperity and impacts of climate change as some of the factors that were set to change the face of farming around the world.

These influences on agriculture were likely to make food security a key concern in the coming years, warned Jules Pretty, deputy chairman of Acre.

One possible solution would be the greater use of GM technology to produce, for example, drought-resistant food crops.

However, there has been widespread public concern about the potential impacts of GM crops on the environment.

Maize, Bayer Crop Science AG

This led to the formation of very tight regulations governing the technology, Professor Pretty explained.

"In the report, we set out a series of other examples in agriculture that have had significant impacts on the landscape but have not been regulated.

"For example, the shift from spring wheat to winter wheat, from hay making to silage making, and from mixed farms to specialised farms," he told reporters.

Professor Pretty added that farmers switching from food crops to grow energy crops was a current example of a significant shift in agricultural practices.

He said without evidence-based studies, similar to those used to evaluate GM crops, it was difficult to know whether the growth in energy crops was doing more good than harm.

In its report, the committee recommended the adoption of a Comparative Sustainability Assessment (CSA) for novel crops and farming methods.

By looking at a range of environmental and economic factors, the assessment would provide farmers and policy makers with a better understanding of the potential impacts before adopting the new crop or method.

"Our concern is that novel technologies... are not coming forward in the way that we need them to come forward," Professor Pretty said.

"We are facing a period of significant challenges in the future, and if we miss those chances of novel solutions then we are going to be in a bit of trouble."

The study, which was first published in March last year but now includes the results of a public consultation, is now being considered by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

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