Brussels, 06 May 2004
The UK's Royal Society has attacked the findings of a report by the House of Commons environmental audit committee, which cast doubt on the reliability of results from the government's farm scale evaluations of genetically modified (GM) crops.
The Royal Society called on the committee to withdraw its criticisms of the farm scale evaluations (FSEs), branding them 'misleading'. In its report, published in March, the committee of MPs argued that the trials had been too limited in scope, failing to accurately measure crops yields, and assessing the crop's effects of biodiversity only in relation to conventional farming methods, rather than more biodiversity-friendly methods such as organic farming.
Their report therefore concluded that: 'It would be irresponsible for the government to permit the commercialisation of GM crops on the basis of one narrow component of the entire evaluation of GM technology. This would be the case even were there no significant doubts as to the robustness, validity and relevance of the FSE results.'
On 5 May, however, the Royal Society defended the results of the trials, which it had originally published in its scientific journal 'Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society' in October 2003. The President of the Royal Society, Lord May of Oxford, said: 'I have expressed my disappointment to the committee that they have still not publicly withdrawn their misleading criticism of the journal papers about the GM farm trials.'
He continued: 'The committee's statement, about 'significant doubts as to the robustness, validity and relevance' of the results of the farm scale evaluations, was both inaccurate and damaging. [...] If the committee had such doubts, why did they not raise them directly with the scientists responsible for carrying out the research in an oral evidence session?'
Another of the committee's criticisms centred on the fact that recent research into experiences of growing GM crops in North America had not been carried out until most of the FSEs had reported their results, and therefore would not be factored into the government's current decision-making on GM authorisation.
Lord May responded by saying: 'The committee questioned the validity of the papers published in a peer reviewed journal about the most extensive research on farmland ecology ever carried out. Yet they appeared to attach great importance to a technical report about pesticide use associated with GM crops in North America, which, by the author's own admission, was based on extrapolated data and not subjected to peer review. The committee did not place enough weight on scientific information that has been subjected to peer review.'
He added that an examination of North American experiences would be useful as part of a general overview of experiences of growing GM crops, but warned against placing too much weight on such data, as agricultural systems and land use in the UK differ greatly from those in North America.
Lord May concluded that: 'The most pressing question arising from the farm scale evaluations is not weather GM crops are better or worse for the environment than conventional crops, but rather, what is it that we want from modern agriculture?'
'We need a wide ranging debate about how future technologies, including new non-traditional methods of genetically modifying crops, might be used to minimise the adverse impact of agriculture on farmland wildlife. Perhaps the committee could consider this as a topic for a future inquiry.' To read the environmental audit committee report, please: click here