BioWorld International Correspondent

LONDON - The prospects of lifting the moratorium on genetically modified crops in Europe were undermined severely when the results of the biggest GM crop trials anywhere in the world concluded that herbicide-tolerant oil seed rape and sugar beet are more harmful to wildlife than conventional crops.

In contrast, growing herbicide-tolerant GM maize was better than conventional maize.

The three-year trials sponsored by the British government found that insects, such as bees, butterflies, and birds, were more abundant in and around conventional crops because there were more weeds to provide food and cover. Some groups of soil insects were found in greater numbers in GM beet and rape.

There were more butterflies and bees and more weed seeds recorded around GM maize crops than conventional crops. However, the effect on biodiversity does not result from genetic modification but from the different way herbicides are applied, and the maize results were called into question because atrazine, the herbicide used in the trial, is about to be banned by the European Union.

The £6 million (US$10.1 million) farm-scale evaluation studied 273 fields around the UK.

In another setback to the prospects for GM approvals, a further study on gene flow from GM crops to their conventional counterparts - also released last week - detected cross pollination beyond the 200-meter recommended separation distances mandated by the EU. That could undermine the EU's proposed policy of keeping GM and non-GM supply chains separate and insisting on less than a 0.9 percent level of GM material for a crop to be certified as GM free.

Environment and consumer groups marched in London last week, calling on the government to ban GM crops. But the government will not respond formally to the study until next year, when the results have been assessed by the statutory advice group on GM crops, the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment.

Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett said, "The results will not only inform the UK government's position, we are forwarding them to all other EU member states."

Beckett has claimed consistently that the UK government is neither pro- nor anti-GM crops. However, the findings of the farm-scale evaluation come on top of the generally unfavorable findings of three other government-sponsored studies looking at public acceptance, a review of the science and a cost-benefit analysis. Although the findings of the farm-scale pilots are mixed, the overall weight of evidence and public opinion is currently against GM crops.

Beckett said the government will decide its policy on GM crops in the light of all the available evidence. "The government commissioned this research . . . to address a specific gap in our knowledge," she said. "The trials demonstrate the precautionary approach which the government has taken on GM crops from the start."

The negativity around GM crops was heightened when Margot Wallstrom, EU environment commissioner, said the EU's five-year moratorium on GM crops should be lifted, but accused biotechnology companies of providing misleading information about their benefits.

And anti-GM protesters were jubilant at the announcement by Monsanto Co. that it is closing its European conventional cereal seed breeding business, based in Cambridge, UK. The move also will affect breeding stations in France, Germany and the Czech Republic.