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GM Crops "Could Benefit Environment"

Writing in the Journal of Animal and Feed Sciences, two researchers at the University of Reading , UK, have suggested that the adoption of genetically modified crops across the European Union could benefit rather than harm the environment. Dr Richard Phipps and Dr J. R. Park argue that the introduction of herbicide tolerant soyabean, oil seed rape, cotton and maize and insect protected cotton reduced global pesticide use by a total of 22.3 million kg of formulated product in 2000. Pesticide application is known to have adverse effects on human health and the environment and can be a particular danger in developing countries where education on correct usage is poor and safety equipment may not be available. Phipps and Park acknowledge that there are many controversial issues associated with the introduction of GM crops but have reviewed the possible benefits that they could bring to European agriculture and their possible global impact. In the EU, pesticide usage has already declined due to lower dose rates, better application technology, legislation, farm management practices and agri-environmental schemes. However, Phipps and Park wanted to assess the potential of GM crops to further reduce pesticide use. The authors modelled the introduction of herbicide-tolerant maize, oil seed rape and sugar beet and insect-protected cotton. They used data for the area of these crops grown in the EU and standard pesticide programmes for ordinary crops and those used for GM varieties in order to estimate total pesticide use. The authors concluded that if 50% of the maize, oil seed rape, sugar beet and cotton grown in the EU was of GM varieties, the total amount of pesticide used would fall by 14.5 million kg of formulated product a year. This represents a decrease of 4.4 million kg of active ingredient. The total area sprayed would also be reduced by 7.5 million hectares. This reduction in overall area sprayed would bring an additional environmental benefit of less diesel use. Phipps and Park estimate that less spraying would save 20.5 million litres of diesel and reduce the amount of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere by 73,000 tonnes. The benefits of GM crops could grow if, as a result of expansion, larger cotton growing countries such as Turkey entered the EU.
The authors acknowledge that the size of reduction in pesticide use varies with the crop considered. For herbicide tolerant soyabeans, a reduction of only 10% is found. However, for insect-protected cotton, a highly significant reduction of 60% is recorded. An additional environmental benefit for GM soyabeans is that they can be grown using conservation tillage techniques which could be significant for developing countries as well as some parts of the EU.
Phipps and Park conclude in their paper that they welcome rigorous investigation of the impact of GM crops in the EU but are surprised that some of the potentially positive aspects of the introduction of GM crops appear to have been ignored. They suggest that if European consumers were shown the list of sprays used on conventional crops compared with those for GM crops, a more positive attitude towards agricultural biotechnology might emerge. A similar survey conducted in Canada revealed that 60% of consumers selected GM varieties rather than conventional varieties when the spraying regime was explained.
The paper, entitled "Environmental benefits of genetically modified crops: Global and European perspectives on their ability to reduce pesticide use", was published in the Journal of Animal and Feed Sciences (2002) Volume 11, pp. 1-18.
Contact: Dr R. H. Phipps, Department of Agriculture, University of Reading,
Earley Gate, PO Box 237, Reading, RG6 6AR, UK.
Tel: +44 (118) 9318494
Fax: +44 (118) 9352421