New ecological patterns from the GM crop trials (FSEs) database

Two scientific papers on food webs and species-accumulation offer new approaches to GM risk assessment and post-commercial monitoring

Image showing sites for spring-sown crops in the FSEs - beet (blue), maize (red), oilseed rape (yellow)The world's largest GM field trials - the Farm Scale Evaluations of GM herbicide-tolerant crops, the FSEs - brought more than £6M of government funding to the study of arable ecosystems. A consortium of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Rothamsted Research and SCRI conducted the trials between 1999 and 2005 on more than 250 sites. The results have had wide influence on crop biotech policy in the UK and Europe. The basic comparisons of the effect of GM and non-GM cropping on biodiversity were published in around 15 papers to refereed journals including Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Nature, Biology Letters, Proceedings of the Royal Society and the Journal of Applied Ecology. The trials also established an unrivalled database of arable biodiversity and field management that continues to provide a rich seam for mining and analysis.

Mining the FSEs database

Corn mint, uncommon in Scotland, supports insect pollinators - photograph from the Living Field collectionThe funding of the FSEs, and subsequent related research on geneflow and GM-persistence, allowed SCRI to establish a strong base in ecosystem studies that now supports research in sustainable systems and environmental risk assessment. The SCRI team and its collaborators continue to explore the database for general patterns and interactions. This month sees the publication of two further papers in international scientific journals. That by Hawes et al. (2009), jointly with Rothamsted Research, condenses the hundreds of species found in the FSEs to plant and invertebrate functional types, determined variously by their life history traits, behaviour and feeding preferences. This functional approach allowed construction of a detailed arable food web. That by Squire et al. (2009) examines the way a new form of field management might cause the cumulative number of both species and functional types to diverge from the present state as a new form of management occupies more of the landscape. It predicts that small effects on less common species in each field might turn into larger effects on the species pool in a region.

Risk assessment, monitoring, biovigilence

Hoverfly feeding on wild carrot umbel - photograph from the Living Field collectionTogether the findings emphasise that any new agricultural technology will have diverse and complex effects on the living organisms that are the essential life-support for our food security. No single or simple indicator of biodiversity is enough to define the biota's response to innovation. Nor will field experiments at a few sites predict cumulative effects over space and time. When assessing major agricultural change (GM or not) therefore:

  • field trials - even on the scale of the FSEs - are one further tier in the gradualist approach to major innovations, not the final end-point;
  • if field trials point to adverse effects, the innovation should be brought into question, but otherwise extension to the scale of commercial planting should be allowed;
  • monitoring of food webs and the likely regional impacts on the biota should be in place during the first years of commercial planting.

Contacts and links to other FSE studies at SCRI 

Cathy Hawes for food webs, Geoff Squire for species-accumulation. Also from SCRI, Graham Begg for modelling and Mark Young for data-mining.

Dave Bohan and Alison Haughton are colleagues from Rothamsted Research.

Background and publications on SCRI work min the UK's GM crop trials can be found on the following Agroecology web pages: the Farm Scale Evaluations (FSEs) of GMHT crops and Seedbank studies in the FSEs.


Defra and the Scottish Government funded collection of data in the Farm Scale Evaluations. Further information can be found on Defra's Genetic modifications (GM) web page.



(Added 30 January 2009; amended with new photograph 3 February 2009)