The UK farm-scale evaluation (FSE) of herbicide tolerant canola has been completed and published. The data is clear but what it means is up for debate. Critics would have us believe the results show these biotech crops are bad for the environment. They say the FSE proves transgenic (created with recombinant DNA technology) crops threaten bees and butterflies. Can this be true?

Researchers compared herbicide tolerant winter canola with conventional winter canola in 65 fields, over a three-year period. They measured the numbers of weeds and insects in and around the fields. To no one’s surprise the herbicide tolerant canola fields had fewer weeds than the conventional canola. Some have argued that this difference means less food (weed seeds) for birds and therefore shows a threat to bird populations. But no one counted any birds to test this idea.

Critics reported the FSE data showed up to a 50 percent drop in the number of bees and close to 60 percent drop in the number of butterflies in the transgenic canola fields compared to conventional canola. This sounds ominous. But if one looks at the numbers the danger all but disappears. The average number of bees per 1600 square meters of field was 14 versus 11. Or to put it another way there were three more bees found in the conventional field then the transgenic field. The largest difference was found in the number of bumblebees. But even these numbers were so low that only 12 of the 65 sites had statistically significant values. Some would have us believe this is evidence that transgenic crops threaten bees. However the researchers stated; “It looks likely that bumblebees will be more affected by the proportion of farmland growing different crops than whether fields contain conventional or GM crops.”

The average number of butterflies found in 3200 square meters of fields was 5 versus 3. Should we be concerned with two fewer butterflies per field? An interesting point not reported by the critics, was the vast majority of the butterflies counted were in fact pests of the crop. Also the numbers of beetles, springtails and sucking bugs were higher in the herbicide tolerant canola fields. So what does this data say about the environmental effects of growing biotech crops? I guess that depends on whether one is a bee, butterfly or bug.

It is true that transgenic crops are considered substantially equivalent, but only after years of testing that demonstrates no significant difference with conventional counterparts. Often more then a decade of research is done on a transgenic crop before it is sold commercially. The idea that transgenic crops are not tested or regulated is false. Biotechnology crops are the most highly studied, regulated and safest crops in the history of agriculture.

The American Medical Association states; “Attempts to introduce GM foods have stimulated not a reasoned debate, but a potent negative campaign by people with other agendas. Opponents ignore common farming practices and well-investigated facts about plants, or inaccurately present general problems as being unique to GM plants.”

It is easy to forget all agriculture impacts the environment and biotechnology derived crops are no different. Critics would like us to believe genetically modified crops threaten the environment and us. However the scientific data on safety and environmental impact of biotech crops continue to be positive. Hundreds of millions of pounds of insecticides are not used because biotech crops protect themselves. Billions of tons of topsoil are not lost to erosion because herbicide tolerant crops reduce the need to till the fields. Trillions of meals containing GM ingredients have been consumed without a single documented case of harm. Over 8 million farmers now grow GM crops and the number of acres planted increases by approximately 15 percent annually.

Unfortunately some media coverage and reports by biotechnology critics about the FSE are more examples of the misinformation campaign presently being waged against genetically modified crops and food. Science does matter and an overwhelming amount of scientific data supports the continued development and incorporation of transgenic crops into world agriculture.

Robert Wager
Malaspina University College

Originally published in The Sault Star, June 23 2005