You are going to read a New Scientist article written by Andy Coghlan. For each question, choose the answer which you think fits best according to the text.
Are genetically modified crops a danger to the environment? Perhaps not, if the results of a little-heralded crop trial in Jutland, Denmark, are anything to go by. The trial may provide a sneak preview of the world’s largest experiment on GM plants, due to finish this summer.
Engineered sugar beet is more friendly to wildlife than its conventional counterpart, the Danish trial suggests. Britain is running a similarly designed, farm-scale evaluation of GM sugar beet, and if this comes up with the same result this summer, one of the key arguments against the technology will disappear. Whether GM oilseed rape and maize measure up too remains to be seen, however.
In their experiments in Jutland from 1999 to 2001, ecologists Beate Strandberg and Marianne Bruus Pedersen compared the environmental impact of conventional beet with that of GM beet resistant to Monsanto’s broad-spectrum herbicide glyphosate. Crucially, they designed their experiment in a way that allowed them to evaluate the effects of glyphosate when used exactly as instructed on the label.
Critics of GM technology have argued that if farmers do this their fields will be left sterilised and barren. In Britain’s farm-scale trials, farmers were asked to stick to the “label-only” regime to make the results representative of what would happen if GM crops were widely grown.
Contrary to expectations, the Danes found that the GM beet was more friendly to wildlife, even when used according to this “harsh” regime. “When farmers used it as recommended, we found a doubling of the weed biomass compared with conventional beet,” says Strandberg, who works at Denmark’s National Environmental Research Institute in Silkeborg. GM plots were also richer in insects, spiders and other arthropods, providing more food for birds than conventional plots.
Earlier this year, British researchers at Broom’s Barn Experimental Station in Suffolk announced results showing that wildlife flourishes under a less harsh herbicide regime. A separate part of the Danish trial confirmed this: it found that delaying the application of herbicide till later than recommended on the label produces a tenfold increase in weeds, and doubling of the insect population.
Les Firbank of Britain’s Center for Ecology and Hydrology in Marlewood, Cumbria, who is heading the farming scale evaluation (FSE) project, warns that the Danish trial may be too small to give a reliable foretaste of the three-year British study. “The issues that Strandberg is investigating relate closely to those we’re looking at but ours include the variations between places and farmers,” he says. “The sheer scale is the power of FSEs, and because of that we can be confident of any generalities that emerge from the results.”