In January, the last public development before the Government decides whether to sanction the commercialisation of GM crops was advice from the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment on last autumn's results from the farm-scale evaluations (FSEs).
The four-year FSEs investigated the biodiversity impacts of herbicide-tolerant GM oilseed rape, beet and maize (ENDS Report 345, pp 27-31 ). Confounding the biotechnology industry's claims, they showed that the herbicide spraying regimes used with GM rape and beet would deplete the arable flora and some insect populations, with knock-on effects on higher organisms such as farmland birds.
Only GM maize performed better in biodiversity terms than conventional varieties - in part because the latter are usually sprayed with atrazine, a herbicide which persists in the soil and keeps weed populations down well into the growing season. An EU ban on atrazine in April 2005 was announced last summer, prompting claims that the FSE results for maize had been made redundant.
ACRE has not come down unequivocally for or against any of the three GM crops. On oilseed rape and beet, it says that adverse effects on farmland biodiversity are likely if they were managed as in the FSEs. The opposite holds for maize.
But these conclusions came with significant qualifications. For example, ACRE believes that it may be possible to manage weeds in GM oilseed rape and beet in ways which make their impact on biodiversity less than or comparable to that of conventional crops.
However, while the Committee received proposals from biotechnology interests on how this might be done, it did not take these into account in its advice to Ministers. Instead, it says that it is for companies to make formal proposals for less damaging weed management strategies when applying for marketing consents, "supported by appropriate evidence" of the consequences for biodiversity.
For GM maize, ACRE recommends that commercial growing of the crop should be limited to the conditions under which it was grown in the FSEs, or other conditions "that have been shown not to result in adverse effects" on biodiversity. It also wants urgent studies to determine whether GM maize will retain its biodiversity advantage after atrazine is banned from use on conventional crops.
Some critics of ACRE complained that its advice was not clear. But this was rejected by Environment Minister Elliot Morley in evidence to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee on 13 January.
Ministers, he said, had received a "very clear steer" on GM oilseed rape and beet - implying that they will not sanction commercial growing of either crop. Biotechnology businesses would have to demonstrate that there were alternative herbicide spraying regimes which were less damaging to biodiversity than those used in the FSEs, said Mr Morley, and to do that they would have to carry out field trials.
However, the Minister was fuzzy about how the Government will proceed on GM maize. On the one hand, he said that ACRE's advice was that "any go-ahead for the maize was conditional on further work" to assess whether it will retain its biodiversity advantage over conventional varieties in the post-atrazine era. But he later suggested that this comparison would not be needed until 2006, when the EU consent for the GM maize comes up for renewal.
Mr Morley was adamant on one point: that if GM maize gets the go-ahead, farmers would have to follow the herbicide spraying regime used in the FSEs. Some critics of the FSEs have complained that the regime was devised by biotechnology firms to minimise impacts on biodiversity, and in practice farmers would spray more aggressively in order to maximise crop yields. Mr Morley said: "They could not pass the FSE trials in this way and then commercialise on a different chemical regime."
The FSEs have widened the gap between the Government and biotechnology businesses. The industry's Agricultural Biotechnology Council contends that ACRE's advice amounted to a "compelling green light" for the commercialisation of GM crops, and saw "absolutely no case whatsoever to be banning GM crops."
While the Government regards the FSEs as a benchmark, the ABC told the Commons inquiry that they were a "worst case scenario" in that they took no account of the flexibility in the timing and intensity of herbicide spraying which farmers would quickly learn to exploit with the GM crops.
Mr Morley also told the inquiry that the Government plans to consult on last November's report from the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission on coexistence and liability issues before announcing decisions this summer.
The AEBC's members failed to agree on many key issues.1 They managed to concur that farmers growing GM crops should be subject to binding crop management protocols to minimise conflicts over crop contamination with other growers, and that compensation should be available for economic losses caused by GM contamination of other crops. The report also recommends a distinct liability regime for environmental damage caused by GM crops.
However, the Commission remained split over whether the co-existence and compensation arrangements should be stringent enough to protect organic farmers, who work to an effective zero limit on GM contamination. And it has left Ministers to decide whether any compensation and back-up liability arrangements should be funded by the Government, biotech businesses, seed companies or farmers.