In October, the news media trumpeted the results of a massive study in
the UK that was intended to measure the environmental impact of growing
genetically modified (GM) crop plants. The scientists monitored
wildlife populations in GM and traditional crop fields throughout
England, Wales, and Scotland, and found that fewer wild insects
generally live in fields of GM crops than in fields of conventional
Most media coverage of the study didn’t go into any more detail than the previous paragraph did. But environmental activists pushing the story didn’t help much either. By framing the story as a broad “GM crops are bad” item, both the media and the movement did a disservice to the very real, crucial issue the studies helped reveal.
The study contrasted plots of rapeseed (canola), beets, and maize (corn), each of which had GM and traditional varieties grown in adjacent plots. As mentioned above, researchers found that plots with non-GM canola and beets hosted a greater number of wild insect species, including bumblebees and butterflies. Corn plots showed the opposite effect, with more wildlife in GM plots than in the “old-fashioned” kind.
As you might expect with such apparently divergent results, people on both sides of the GM issue claimed the study vindicated their position. But what activists, corporations, and the media largely failed to mention was the real reason for the difference among the plots, which explains not just the difference between GM and non-GM plots, but also that between corn and the other crops: herbicides.
What the study actually found is that weeds support wildlife on British farms. The more weeds you kill in a field, the worse off the local wildlife will be. The GM crops tested had resistance to certain chemical herbicides spliced into their chromosomes. Those herbicides were used on the GM plots, while others were used on the non-GM plots. The alternative weed-killers used in plots with non-GM canola and beets left more weeds in the field, and so did less to harm local insect life. Meanwhile, the alternative herbicide used in the non-GM corn plots was atrazine, a highly effective weed-killer to which corn is naturally resistant.
One could argue that the study undercuts arguments from the GM industry that herbicide-resistant new crops protect the environment. But the study absolutely does not show that GM crops in and of themselves have either a positive or negative effect on the environment. Meanwhile, it does provide compelling evidence that herbicides pose a serious threat to the food chain, even if used as directed on the label.
There are serious and pressing concerns surrounding the GM crops issue, from dispersal of “Frankengenes” into the wild to disruption of traditional farm economies to concentration of intellectual and capital property in the hands of a few corporations. But misrepresenting the results of the UK study does nothing to advance those concerns, while depriving the organic farming movement of an opportunity to expose the dangers herbicides pose to living things.
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