Science & the Environment News
23/02/04 GM Maize – the Real Scandal by Edward Teague et@shoppp.com
The Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE) have reported to the Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett after 3 years of Field Scale Trials (FST) of genetically modified (GM) maize, beet and oil seed rape varieties that are resistant to glufosinate ammonium herbicide. English Nature, the Government's wildlife "watchdog" have also commented on the trials.

Margaret Beckett will announce any consequent changes in Government policy resulting from these trials, which have been a major factor in the decision making process about which,"We will consider the advice…very carefully before reaching a view on whether these crops should be grown in the EU," said Mrs Beckett on BBC radio.

It is widely reported that Maize trials showed no deleterious effects on wildlife if (in the over cautious language of ACRE) their planting was undertaken in the way the FST's were conducted. There were however reservations expressed by ACRE about beet and oil seed as commercial planting could harm wildlife. Deputy Chairman of ACRE Professor Jules Pretty said, " We're saying 'yes, but' to maize, and 'no, but' to beet and rape". It is expected that the Government will give the green light to GMN maize plantings, but refrain from approval on GM rape and beet.

Bad news, Good News then…?

Lost in these arguments is the absurdity of planting maize in the UK. It represents less than 1% of arable crop plantings and prior to receiving subsidies in 1993 was virtually unknown as a crop.

Why?

Because maize as a cereal crop, originating in tropical and sub-tropical America requires, very hot short summers and plenty of water and so rarely matures, even in the South and South East to produce useful grain crops. As a result it is grown as a forage crop, cut and mixed with molasses (silage) and other feed ingredients and makes a high quality and palatable indoor winter feed for cattle and sheep. The standard and alternative fodder crop is unsubsidised rye grass, with lower crop yields, easier to harvest and not susceptible to insect and fungal disease.

Maize is also widely used as a game cover for pheasants on subsidized set-aside land, providing feed and a late season cover and idle pleasures for those who get their enjoyment from shooting the semi-domesticated pheasant at great expense. It is also grown for constructing maize mazes as farm tourist attractions.

Have there been trials to ascertain any problems for the suitability of subsidized GM maize as a fodder crop ? No.

Are there any regulations in place, or under consideration, to control the use of subsidized GM maize in UK animal fodder? No.

Popular demand means food producers and retailers are being asked for meat from animals fed a GM free diet, will this impact on the decision of UK farmers to use subsidized GM Maize as a fodder crop? Yes.

The Billion Dollar Bug

Maize is not only a popular food for humans and farm livestock. One particularly hungry insect, the Western corn rootworm, the larval stage of Diabrotica virgifera, likes to feast on the roots and in the adult beetle stage, the cob and silk of maize. This results in devastated crops, dramatically reduced crop yield and financial losses, hence the Western US soubriquet of the "million dollar bug".

This root chomping pest, was first found in Europe, near Belgrade Airport in the early 90's, it has also been found in Austria and in France in Alsace and near Charles De Gaulle Airport. Last September it was discovered in traps near Heathrow and Schipol Airports leading to the belief that it has spread by hitch-hiking on planes. DEFRA has been actively pursuing control methods with the UK Maize Growers Association and suggests that earlier harvesting and crop rotation may help reduce infestation as the aggressive seed dressings and crop treatments with pesticides would be more harmful to wildlife than any applications of herbicidal glufosinate.

Alarmed? You shouldn't be

"GM maize ..spells disaster for UK wildlife", says the quiet voice of reason, Greenpeace". Of the trials comparing the use of glufosinate ammonium herbicide with, the shortly to be phased out atrazine, Sarah North of Greenpeace says, "…it's like recommending a holiday in Baghdad because it's safer than Chechyna".

This alarmist, ill informed and irrational nonsense, produced at the jerk of a knee, doesn't advance the necessary arguments over genetic manipulation of the human food chain, excludes the authors from the decision making process, debases the debate and alarms the public.

Crop plantings for maize in the USA announced last week by Keith Collins, US Agricultural department's chief economist are 80.5 million acres, up 2.2% on last year by farmers lured by high market prices experienced last year. Over 50% of those crops will be GM, which make the field trials in the UK superfluous.

The Argument of the Wedge

"This is the thin end of the wedge!" will be the cry, the reflexive response of all those who believe it is unwise to do anything for the first time. These are the scientific Neanderthals who will not be content until we live in caves eating our children. No doubt they were going about beating their breasts when the first agriculturists of Mesopotamia hybridised the early Hordeum wheats, the forerunners of our staple diet.

GM Maize – will anything change?

Popular demand fomented by this apocalyptic nonsense, widely aired by the scientifically illiterate Press, media and Michael Meacher, means food producers and retailers are being asked for meat from animals fed a GM free diet. Will this impact on the decision of UK farmers to use subsidized GM Maize as a fodder crop? Yes.

Have there been trials to ascertain any problems for the suitability of subsidized GM maize as a fodder crop ? No.

Are there any regulations in place, or under consideration, to control the use of subsidized GM maize in UK animal fodder? No.

Will there need to be trials to evaluate the use of subsidized GM maize as a fodder crop , and to introduce regulations ( and necessarily, regulators) ? Yes. This will of course augment yet further testing and evaluation of GM rape and beet environmental studies and possibly risks to the food chain of their direct products such as sugar and oils, as well as waste pulps for animal feeds.

In Whitehall – nothing changes

Thus, the Sir Humphreys in Whitehall, have further delayed decision making, whilst producing the illusion of change, with promotion to the farming industry of a subsidized crop, of fractional value and utility to the UK agriculture and food industry, whose very existence is only sustained by the stupid Common Agricultural Policy and it's bottomless budgets and boundless bureaucracies.

This enables them to help their political masters by fending off EU protection trade issues from the US, allay the public's (and voter's) irrational food fears and fads. Thus they can continue the funding of never ending research to the satisfaction of the scientists, whilst allowing the ceaseless criticism by the self appointed protectors of the public, like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, so confirming in the mind of the public that, the Men at the Ministry are ever watchful (and are watched) in guarding the public's interests, it's food, and it's health. Naturally all this brouhaha, and the voodoo science it fosters, enables the powerful supermarket chains, the opportunity to maintain high prices, to sustain their vigilance on food standards against a supposed and sustained threat to the nation's diet, whilst carefully and painlessly extracting the costs from the customers wallet.

Now. That is a scandal.

Edward Teague et@shoppp.com

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