London (CNSNews.com) - A four-year, large-scale study of genetically modified crops has found use of the plants had a mixed effect on the local environment, according to results published by the British government on Thursday.
Trial plantings of sugar beets and oil seed rape led to declines in local wildlife, including birds and insects, according to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). But trials of GM corn actually boosted the local environment.
The study was largest of its type ever conducted, cost $8 million, and examined only the effects of the crops on the environment surrounding farms. It wasn''t concerned with the potential health effects of GM food or cross-pollination with non-GM plants.
Crops in the study, including those produced by the German company Bayer CropScience and U.S. firm Monsanto, were genetically modified to provide resistance to specific weed killers.
The study found that the effect on nearby insects and birds was due to changing patterns of herbicide use rather than the actual genetic modifications.
Biotech companies and proponents of genetic modification say the plants will increase crop yields and result in more effective use of chemicals. But environmentalists argue that the benefits of the plants are overestimated and that the long-term risks of consuming GM foods are unknown.
Environmental protesters succeeded in digging up some of the 273 trial fields, but the overall results of the experiment weren''t affected.
"The government commissioned this research - the biggest GM crop trials anywhere in the world - to address a specific gap in our knowledge," said Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett. "We persisted with this research despite the activities of some anti-GM campaigners, including serious attempts to destroy the trial sites."
"I have said consistently that the government is neither pro- nor anti-GM crops," she said. "Our overriding concern is to protect human health and the environment, and to ensure genuine consumer choice."
The results will be forwarded to an independent scientific advisory committee that is developing guidelines for future experiments.
Although they are common in the United States, no GM crops are approved for commercial planting in Britain or anywhere else in Europe.
After initially banning the plants, a move that sparked transatlantic trade threats, the European Union has recently taken steps to try to test and approve the crops for general use.
In July, the E.U. sued 11 of its member states, accusing them of dragging their feet on implementing legal changes that will allow GM food to be sold in supermarkets.
E.U. lawmakers have also passed labeling guidelines for GM products.
The moves have failed to completely end the trade dispute with the United States, however, as a ban on the import of GM crops into Europe will remain in place until the end of this year. U.S. corn farmers allege the rule costs them $300 million a year.
Monsanto Pulls Out
The report was published a day after food giant Monsanto announced plans to sell off its cereal seed business headquartered in eastern England. The company cited lack of demand for its genetically modified hybrid wheat seeds.
A company spokesman said the firm had made "great progress" in turning around the wheat business it bought in 1998 from Unilever, but that the operation was no longer "a good strategic fit."
Environmentalists cheered the decision.
"Monsanto set up the operation ... five years ago with the clear intention of introducing GM wheat and barley into Europe," said a spokesman for Friends of the Earth. "This has been a pretty abject failure."
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