Bioengineered crops have mixed eco effects

An unusually large research project in Great Britain has revealed that growing beets and canola that had been genetically modified to resist herbicides lowers the abundance of other plant species and certain insect groups that typically grow along with these crops. On the other hand, cornfields harboring genetically modified (GM) corn that resists herbicides have more weeds and insects than regular cornfields did, according to a series of reports in the Nov. 29 Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B.

The mixed results are from a set of experiments covering about 60 farm fields. The 3-year trials, funded by the British government, grew out of concerns that previous studies of the ecological effects of GM crops hadn’t been big enough, says test coordinator Les Firbank of the Center for Hydrology and Ecology in Merlewood, England. Half of each test field was planted with the conventional crop and half with a GM version.

Areas growing GM beets and spring-planted canola ended up with weed-seed densities about 20 percent lower than those of areas with conventional crops. The GM portions of the beet fields also had fewer butterflies, but more springtails, which are small arthropods that feed on dead plants.

The GM cornfields, in contrast, hosted more insects and a more abundant population of weeds than conventional cornfields did. These differences are due to the somewhat weaker herbicide used in the GM cornfields, compared with the herbicide used on the conventional cornfields, the researchers suggest.

“There are many who are either strong supporters or firm opponents of GM crops, and each camp may be tempted to see support for their views in the findings,” notes Semir Zeki, editor of Philosophical Transactions, in a commentary accompanying the reports.

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Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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