UK farmers are losing out by not having GM crops, claim two NFU members who have recently been on a study tour in Spain, where 550,000ha (1.36m acres) of GM maize are grown.

“Ironically as WTO negotiations continue to bring down trade barriers, we are denied access to cropping tools that could be the key to European farming survival in the face of increasingly tough competition,” said Paul Temple, vice-chairman of the combinable crops board and a Farmers Weekly Barometer farmer.

Herbicide resistant GM sugar beet could significantly reduce production costs to offset some of the severe price cuts in the proposed reforms, he said.

Mr Temple said he and the other delegates who went on the trip arranged by Spanish biotech organisation ANTAMA were impressed by the country’s commonsense attitude to GM crops.

Four years of growing them had seen no legal difficulties, the industry having created workable regulations, for example on buffer zones for co-existence with conventional crops.

“This mature approach has allowed the area to develop without creating a two-tier market,” said Mr Temple.

There had been some public opposition, but the whole process was transparent and produce was properly labelled.

“Effectively there were no problems within the whole chain.”

Norfolk farmer David Hill, one of the first to trial GM sugar beet in the UK in the late 1990s, was equally impressed.

The technology behind Bt GM maize prevented corn borer damage and saved at least two insecticide treatments.

“It’s a major frustration that we can’t move it along and into sugar beet which would enable us to compete better in the world market.”