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Genetically-Modified Silent Spring

Rachel Carson wrote the book "Silent Spring" years ago to warn that the use of the pesticide DDT was killing America?s songbirds. Now our birds have another enemy: herbicide-tolerant genetically-modified crops. These crops enable farmers to spray herbicides on their fields to get rid of the weeds, without killing their crops. However, a decline in weeds means a decline in the seeds those weeds produce?many of which are the staple food for bird populations. Birds and butterflies don?t like the kind of plants we eat?they like things like milkweed, which is the main diet of Monarch butterflies. If we get rid of the weeds, we?ll leave them nothing to eat.

Andrew Watkinson of the University of East Anglia in the U.K., found that weed seeds can decline as much as 90% in fields where herbicide-tolerant GM crops are planted. In England, scientists are worried that this decline in seeds will especially affect skylarks, which are a favorite bird in the countryside. Some bird populations in the U.K. have already declined by up to 90% in the last 25 years. "It seems likely that the widespread introduction of herbicide-tolerant crops will result in further declines for many farmland birds unless mitigating measures are taken," says Watkinson.

Watkinson and his team are looking into such things as how herbicide-tolerant sugar beets effect a weed known as Lamb's Quarters in North America and Fat Hen in Britain, and how the decline of this weed effects the skylark. Their study shows that how farmers use GM crops makes a big difference, since most fields have very low seed densities. It?s the small number of fields with high-seed-density plants in them that can make the difference between a singing and a silent spring.

If the use of GM crops is restricted to farms with low seed densities, then the effect on bird populations will be minor. But if farmers with very weedy fields switch to herbicide-resistant plants, then the decline in the number of birds will be severe. These are the fields the birds are counting on to survive, and without them, they?ll have no other place to find food. Basically, researchers are saying that large factory-farms already use GM crops, but if the small farmer starts using them too, the birds are doomed.

Monsanto says that biotechnology is not the villain here, and it?s possible to achieve the same level of weed control, and still reduce bird populations, by using traditional pesticides instead of GM crops. In fact, the company argues that GM crops are better for birds. "Herbicide-tolerant plants allow farmers to maintain weeds longer in sugar beet fields, which could offer greater resources at a time of year when for birds food is scarce," says Scarlett Foster, public affairs director for Monsanto.

The British Trust for Ornithology says, "There are millions of acres of this stuff being grown elsewhere in the world and Britain simply can't hold out for ever. What's vital is that we look at the impact of GM crops on birds in real-life terms to find out what the actual, not theoretical, effects will be."

Adrian Bebb of Friends of the Earth says, "This new research provides shocking evidence of what could happen to our farmland bird populations, already in sharp decline because of chemical-heavy intensive farming."

GM food is not just in our future?it?s here right now, although we may not realize it. Read about the genetically-modified foods on your grocery shelves in ?Eating in the Dark: America?s Experiment with Genetically-Engineered Food? by Kathleen Hart,click here.

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