CHURCHVILLE, VA—Late last year, the British government completed extensive three-year field trials of genetically modified rapeseed, sugar beets, and corn. The journal Science reported, “Cultivation of [genetically modified] beets and rapeseed clearly had deleterious effects on wildlife and native plants” in the trials. The Guardian of London headlined, “Two GM Crops Face Ban for Damaging Wildlife.” Commentator John Vidal said that the trials provide “a legal basis for banning the two crops under European Union rules.”
What they’re talking about protecting is weeds. The field trials found somewhat more weeds and weed-dependent insects in the conventional rapeseed and sugar beet fields than in the biotech fields—where weed control was more effective. Clare Oxborrow from Friends of the Earth said, “Weeds are a crucial part of maintaining farm land diversity.”
This is absurd. Weeds compete with crop plants for water, soil nutrients, and sunlight. The more weeds in the field, the lower the food production per acre. The more weeds in the fields, the more acreage we’re forced to take away from forests and wild meadows to grow our food.
Leslie Elmslie, in a letter to the Financial Times, wrote that the British government had apparently spent $8.6 million Euros “on conceptually silly but well designed and meticulously implemented trials that demonstrate what any Neolithic farmer scratching the soil with a stick could have told it: that the more weeds there are in a crop, the more animals there will be that feed on those weeds. . . . The Neolithic farmer might have explained that the definition of a weed is a plant out of place and that his aim was to grow crops, not weeds.”
The UN Environmental Program’s recently published Atlas of Biodiversity says wildlife species extinctions in the last third of the twentieth century were only half as numerous as extinctions in the last third of the nineteenth century. That is because high-yield farming systems tripled the yields on the world’s best farmland; we haven’t had to clear significantly more cropland in the last fifty years, even though the human population grew from 2.5 billion to 6 billion and hasn’t quite stopped growing yet.
Let’s be clear about something: any farm is an insult to Nature. Any farm suppresses wildlife within its confines. Organic farmers kill weeds with “bare-earth” tools such as plows and hoes and hand-weeding. Should plows and hoes be banned? Conventional farmers use herbicide sprays to kill the weeds because it is hard to find many workers willing to spend their days whacking weeds with short-handled hoes. Should herbicide sprays be banned?
Humans have already cleared for farming half the global land area not covered by deserts and glaciers. Without biotech, we could lose the wildlands that still occupy nearly half the planet’s land area, as world food demand doubles in the next forty years. The only viable strategy for wildlife conservation in the twenty-first century is to grow the food we need on the smallest possible amount of land.
Biotech does exactly that. In addition to suppressing pests, biotech crops have encouraged a massive increase in no-till farming, which cuts soil erosion by more than 90 percent, precisely because herbicide-tolerant crops help farmers suppress weed competition more effectively.
If the British government is now ushering in a mandate for weedier fields, that is prima facie evidence that the EU’s costly farm subsidies have made Europe a serious danger to the world’s wildlife.
The British conservation movement has apparently been driven slightly insane by the decline in its populations of birds and small wild creatures during the thirty years of Britain’s EU membership. Thousands of miles of thick, ancient, hand-laid hedgerows that once sheltered songbirds, butterflies, and other small creatures have been torn out because high EU farm price supports pushed UK farmers out of grazing (and the consequent need for hedgerows to keep flocks separate) into field crops. Mandating that farmers have more weeds in the fields, however, won’t bring back the hedgerows, which were the critical habitat.
After the British government’s report was released, The New York Times told its readers, “Here’s something for the Greens of the world to ponder: ‘genetic engineering may be the most environmentally beneficial technology to have emerged in decades, or possibly centuries. . . . If properly developed, disseminated and used, genetically modified crops may be the best hope the planet has got.’” Britain, please take note.