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Views from an independent party

by Jennifer Britt
Editor of Organic Business magazine

(Thursday, Oct. 10, 2002 -- CropChoice news) -- English Natureís biotechnology adviser Brian Johnson urges the organic movement to be more open minded about genetic engineering. There is potential for the science to benefit organic farming, he believes.

"The debate needs to mature now. I think the organic movement ought to have another look at biotechnology and ask, can you use it more intelligently than the way it has been used in the past, and, how it might have benefits for organic agriculture in the future," says Johnson, who heads the biotechnology unit at English Nature. The unit advises all the statutory conservation agencies in the UK. He is also an assessor who sits on the advisory committee reporting to DEFRA ministers about the UKís GM field scale crop trial programme. English Nature was in the vanguard of pressing for a moratorium on commercial GM crop planting in the UK until the potential impact on the environment of modified organisms was more thoroughly understood.

On the basis of what is known so far, Johnson would fear for some of Britainís farmland wildlife should herbicide resistant crops become widely used. But the difference between his approach and that of groups like the Soil Association, who fundamentally oppose all GM in the growing of food, is that he does not have a problem with the basic idea of modifying genes. He feels the organic movement is failing to really engage in the debate about the safety for human health because of its fundamental opposition.

"I think it is important that the organic movement continues to look objectively at the evidence that comes forward." While the "wild cheering" for GM from industry leaves English Nature unmoved, "the complete opposition to the process doesnít impress us either". What is paramount, says Johnson, is to look at each specific application and assess its impact case by case.

So with herbicide resistant crops, the worry is that it will make herbicide control more efficient. The biotechnology companies argue that is a benefit because it means fewer herbicides have to be used - the anti-GM response is that in practice herbicide resistant crops mean more herbicide is applied.

But Johnson says the amount used is a red herring; the potential devastation to wildlife lies not so much in the quantities but in the effectiveness with which herbicide is applied. He also points out that conventional plant breeding can produce herbicide-resistant varieties and that they are not subject to the same impact assessments as the GM ones. He thinks they should be.

A "deep concern" is that British farmers are most likely to sow herbicide resistant seeds in fields where weed control has always been the most difficult - the very fields which are most important to wildlife.

Take oil seed rape, an important food crop for birds. Farmers currently use only limited amounts of herbicide on rape because they do not tend to have major weed problems with it. So why the need for a herbicide-resistant variety?

"Thatís something I have questioned for a long time," says Johnson.

The issue with insect resistant crops is, will it kill wildlife like butterflies and moths if the modified gene transfers into the wild population. Bt seeds are modified by adding genetic material from a soil bacterium which produces a protein toxic to some insects to the genetic code of a plant so that every cell produces the toxin.

A new study from the Universities of Ohio and Nebraska, to be published soon, found that genes from genetically modified sunflowers did transfer into the wild. More to the point, the modified varieties were more vigorous in reproducing themselves than the natural ones. And the next question, which this work does not answer, has to be: Does the increasingly dominant modified strain harm wildlife and in doing so set off a train of consequences in the ecosystem? "There has to be more research," says Johnson.

A popular current view is that key people who make and influence UK Government policy have made up their mind in favour of GM.

Brian Johnson reminds the Government that Environment Minister Michael Meacher has already made a commitment to protect the environment: "If GM crops are likely to create a more intensive agriculture and further damage farmland biodiversity, then Michael Meacher has said that they wonít be released."

Editor's note: This story appeared in the August 2002 edition of Organic Business.