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Ecology and government policies: the GM crop debate

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• The current controversy over the possible commercial-scale cultivation of genetically modified crops in Europe presents enormous challenges for the science of ecology. In little more than a decade, ecology has come to occupy centre stage in a very heated public debate.

• In outlining the challenge to ecology I discuss some of the key elements in the GM debate, and trace the growing importance of ecological questions within the regulatory and advisory system in the UK. The need to understand, and predict, some of the potential wider environmental impact of genetically modified (GM) crops has both driven changes in the regulations and led directly to farm-scale evaluation of herbicide-tolerant crops.

• Several examples illustrate how ecological science is being used, and abused, in the public debate and in the provision of advice to regulators. In particular short-term or laboratory studies identifying possible hazards or impacts often receive widespread media attention but the thorough ecological field-based studies which either evaluate exposure to a hazard or assess fitness over several generations are rarely carried out, or, in the classic case of the impact of Bt maize on the Monarch butterfly, pass almost unnoticed.

• It is increasingly important that trained ecologists become involved in the public debate. The challenge of dealing with the problems of variability, complexity and uncertainty, and of developing the necessary predictive tools for risk assessment, bring with it a huge responsibility, not only to be clear about the limitations of our science, but to recognise and acknowledge the boundary between science and informed opinion. Journal of Applied Ecology (2004) 41, 1–10
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Keywords: GM crops; ecology and policy; gene flow; regulation; risk assessment

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: February 1, 2004

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