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Is nature static or dynamic and what can we learn from the UK’s farm scale evaluations Tony Gilland Science and Society Director Institute of Ideas.

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Presentation on theme: "Is nature static or dynamic and what can we learn from the UK’s farm scale evaluations Tony Gilland Science and Society Director Institute of Ideas."— Presentation transcript:

1 Is nature static or dynamic and what can we learn from the UK’s farm scale evaluations Tony Gilland Science and Society Director Institute of Ideas

2 Overview – part 1 The UK’s Farm Scale Evaluation Trials  Why did they take place?  What did we learn?  What’s happening now?

3 Overview – part 2 Biodiversity – time to question orthodoxies and stop moralising?  The meteoric rise of the word ‘biodiversity’.  What does it mean?  Scientific or moral story?  Challenging anti-humanism and getting on with farming.

4 Why did the FSEs take place? The purpose of the trials was to evaluate the indirect environmental impacts of growing genetically modified maize, beet and spring/winter sown oil seed rape – all of which had already received regulatory approval. They were designed to test the null hypothesis “that, for each crop, the effect on the abundance and diversity of wildlife of the management of the GM crop does not differ from the effect of the management of the conventional equivalent”.

5 Why did they really take place? Genetically altered crops “could wipe out farmland birds”, Guardian, 8/7/98 Genetic crops “pose threat to all wildlife”, Daily Telegraph, 8/7/98 New Crops “Threaten Wildlife”, Independent, 8/7/98 Silent spring, 2020, Times, 13/7/98 Skylark “may be extinct within 10 years”, Independent, 14/12/98 Where have all our birds gone?, Times, 26/12/98 Genetic Food: the case against fields where birds don’t sing, Independent, 13/2/99

6 Drive to save grey partridge from wipeout, Sunday Telegraph, 14/2/99 Crops altered by science ‘pose threats to farmland birds’, Daily Telegraph, 17/2/99 Fears grow that sterilising effect will hasten decline of wildlife, Daily Telegraph, 18/2/99 Dawn chorus grows fainter as songbird numbers fall, Sunday Telegraph, 28/3/99 Farm subsidies have brought death to millions of songbirds, Independent, 12/8/99 Farms for the future - the market can’t deliver song thrushes, Guardian, 4/9/99

7 Kestrels the latest victims of intensive farming, Times, 13/9/99 Farming puts birds in peril, Guardian, 14/9/99 Woodland birds thrive as farm species slump, Independent, 14/9/99 Britain’s skylarks are falling victim to a cereal killer, Independent, 19/1/00 Appeal to stop the decline in farmland birds, Daily Telegraph, 7//2/00 Shall we hear the songbirds’ sweet music again?, Times, 8/2/00 Intensive farming ‘puts wild bird sites at risk’, Daily Telegraph, 30/3/00

8 The pivotal role of farmland birds

9 The decisive influence of 12 ‘farmland specialist’ bird species

10 What did the FSEs find

11 In 2003, the team reported that there were differences in the abundance of wildlife between GMHT and conventional spring rape, beet and maize. Later results also found differences for winter rape. There were more insects, such as butterflies and bees, in and around the conventional crops because there were more weeds to provide food and shelter. There were also more weed seeds in conventional beet and spring rape crops than in their GM counterparts. Weed seeds are important in the diets of some animals, particularly farmland birds.

12 What did the FSEs find In contrast, growing GMHT maize was better for many groups of wildlife than conventional maize. There were more weeds in and around the GMHT crops, more butterflies and bees around at certain times of the year, and more weed seeds. Growing GMHT winter rape resulted in the same number of weeds as in the conventional crops. However, in the GM crops, there were fewer broad-leaved, flowering weeds that are especially beneficial for wildlife, and there were more grass weeds. There were also fewer bees and butterflies. But there were no marked differences in overall numbers of other insects, slugs and spiders.

13 What’s happening now Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment established sub group to consider the wider issues raised by FSEs: –Directive 2001/18/EC provides no means of balancing risks and benefits. –The impacts of the management regime associated with these GMHT crops are no greater than the differences between different conventionally managed crops. –Other major changes in agricultural practice, not just those associated with GM crops, may need to be scrutinized in terms of their environmental impact.

14 What’s happening now ACRE has proposed that a Comparative Assessment (CSA) for novel crops and agricultural practices be established: –What does society want from the countryside? –How to achieve economic viability and sustainability? –Focus on major not minor changes. –Need for flexible regulatory approach. –Balance risks and benefits using a multi- criteria matrix approach.

15 Is this a good thing? Yes, seems like a more sensible approach. But danger of tying ourselves in knots. Excessive fear of human impacts on the world is not peculiar to agriculture. Look at the chemical industry and REACH for example. Are there some deeper cultural issues we need to address?

16 The meteoric rise of the ‘biodiversity’ “Biodiversity” is often defined as the variety of all forms of life, from genes to species, through to the broad scale of ecosystems. "Biodiversity" was coined as a contraction of "biological diversity" in A symposium in 1986, and follow-up book BioDiversity by E. O. Wilson, heralded the popularity of this concept. "in 1988, biodiversity did not appear as a keyword in Biological Abstracts, and biological diversity appeared once. In 1993, biodiversity appeared seventy-two times, and biological diversity nineteen times". Takacs (1996, p.39) Today it would be hard to count how many times "biodiversity" is used every day by scientists, policy-makers, and others.

17 Scientific or moral story?

18 The dangers of mixing the two “Seen through a wider-angle lens, the impending diminution of the Earth’s diversity of plant and animal species could be an even greater threat than climate change. Unfortunately, analysis of the causes and consequences of accelerating extinction rates is impeded by the rudimentary state of our knowledge …” “… the crucial difference between the Sixth Wave of mass extinction and the previous Big Five: the earlier extinctions stemmed from external environmental events; the sixth, set to unfold over the next several centuries (seemingly long to us, but a blink of the eye in geological terms), derives directly from human impacts.” Sir Robert May, 2005 Royal Society Presidential Address, Threats to Tommorrow’s World

19 Challenging anti-humanism and getting on with farming “Man is a singular creature. He has a set of gifts which make him unique among the animals so that, unlike them, he is not a figure in the landscape he is the shaper of the landscape.” Jacob Bronowski, Lower than the Angels, The Ascent of Man, BBC 1973


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