Monsanto modified soya "good for environment"

Roundup Ready soya part of wider shift to sustainable agriculture, company claims

The controversial "Roundup-Ready" genetically modified soya variety is environmentally beneficial, its developer Monsanto claims, in a study of the first two years of commercial use of the crop in the USA. The variety has generated huge political debate in Europe, where it has yet to be planted commercially.

Completed in April, the study has not been widely publicised. Copies were released yesterday at a conference on sustainable agriculture organised by the company in London. Prepared independently for Monsanto, it concludes that Roundup Ready soya cultivation is yielding both environmental and economic benefits, including better weed control, lower overall herbicide use and improved farm efficiency.

Average herbicide use was lower on Roundup Ready fields, according to the report, because farmers dispensed with preventive herbicide treatments traditionally used before planting. In 1997, when some 3.5m hectares of Roundup Ready soya were planted in the USA, herbicide use was reduced by 11-30% according to geographical area, it reports.

Broader environmental benefits stem from compatibility of the variety with low tillage practices, Monsanto says. Just under half of the area planted with Roundup Ready in 1997 was "no-till," the study reports, with economic and environmental benefits including greater crop rotation flexibility, significantly reduced soil erosion and water runoff and increased soil carbon retention.

No-till also cuts fuel use by 20-40%, the study reports. The authors calculate that if all 3.5m hectares planted with Roundup Ready in 1997 had moved from conventional tillage practices to no-till management then over 378,000 tonnes of carbon emissions would have been avoided.

Presented to leading British agricultural figures yesterday, the report brought immediate condemnation from environmental group Friends of the Earth (FoE), which described it as a "mish-mash of genetically modified mumbo jumbo". Monsanto's evidence in favour of genetically modified crops was "feeble," FoE said.

In a counter-statement, Monsanto accused FoE of "undermining its own credibility" and reiterated its claim that Roundup Ready was bringing real benefits to both farmers and the environment. The company also stressed its belief that Roundup Ready soya and other applications of biotechnology meant progress towards a sustainable agriculture.

Interviewed by ENDS Daily, Colin Merritt of Monsanto said the firm was reorienting its entire business around sustainability by shifting its focus from chemicals to life sciences. Yesterday's conference had been intended to discuss broad issues of sustainable agriculture, but had been hijacked by the modified soya issue, he said. Nevertheless, he claimed, biotechnology had a key role to play in achieving the goal.

Follow Up:
Monsanto, tel: +44 171 495 8455; Friends of the Earth England, Wales & Northern Ireland, tel: +44 171 490 1555.

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