The NFU is embroiled in a row with farmers against the introduction of genetically modified crops after agreeing a policy statement on GM coexistence targets.

The union’s ruling Council has endorsed a position statement, which will form the basis of the NFU’s response to a government consultation exercise on the issue, expected to be launched shortly.

The statement, which has already been publicly criticised by the Soil Association, backs the co-existence framework recommended by SCIMAC (Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops), to deliver a 0.9% threshold for accidental presence. 

This is based on a code of practice and a redress charter, with statutory separation distances and notification arrangements.  The NFU’s statement also calls urgently for a 0.5% threshold for seeds.

NFU vice president, Paul Temple, said:  “This is about being prepared for something that may happen in the future. Consumers will decide what they want from us. But we need to keep our options open, and agreeing sensible co-existence rules enables us to do that.”

Mr Temple, who presented the paper to Council, stressed that the NFU’s guiding principle in the GM debate was that the interests or choices exercised by any one group of producers should not prejudice the options of another.

“We are determined that our stance in the GM debate should be based on sound science.  But this particular issue is not about the pros and cons of GMs; it is about co-existence, which is a purely economic issue.

“We are well aware of the potential benefits of GMs, but we are equally aware of the concerns that many farmers and growers, particularly in the organic sector, have about the technology and its impacts.

“The best way to meet those concerns is to have co-existence measures that are achievable and pragmatic, which genuinely protect crop integrity and which do not place impossibly high barriers in the way either of farmers wanting to grow GMs, or of organic producers wanting to protect their businesses.”

But critics of the technology claim the policy paper is biased towards the technology and does not take the concerns of consumers and organic farmers into account.

Somerset farmer Oliver Dowding, the union’s former organic farming spokesman, said he was disappointed with the policy and thought it was a mistake.

“Any move further down the path of this technology is for me unwelcome. GMs won’t rescue us from the doldrums.

“I think there is a serious risk of alienating consumers. We can make things work without GMs and we will make it work without them.”

Tim Rigby, an organic farmer from Lancs, said: “I regret the NFU Council decision to approve this policy statement. It is badly worded and a serious error of judgement and I believe that many organic farmers will be leaving the NFU as a result of this.”

The policy paper endorsed by Council claims that coexistence is a purely economic issue not related to human or environmental safety.

It says that GM is a well-established part of the agricultural food and feed chain on a global scale and crops constitute no greater harm to the environment or human health than their non-GM equivalents.