DEFRA secretary Owen Paterson wants Britain to lead a new agricultural revolution across Europe by embracing genetically modified crops to feed the increasing world population.
Mr Paterson said claims that GM crops were “Frankenfoods”, a term deliberately coined to imply they pose a risk to human health and environment, were not true, adding that the science “does not support this”.
However, the UK government, farmers and scientists had a duty to reassure the British public that GMs were a “safe, proven and beneficial innovation”.
“GM crops offer a genuine prospect of high-yielding, low-or-no chemical agricultural production. If we want to reduce the use of chemicals in agriculture, while safeguarding yields and maintaining efficient production, we need to encourage innovation, not deter it,” said Mr Paterson, speaking at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire on Thursday (20 June).
When used properly, GM promises “effective ways to protect or increase crop yields. It can also combat the damaging effects of unpredictable weather and disease on crops. It has the potential to reduce fertiliser and chemical use, improve the efficiency of agricultural production and reduce post-harvest losses”.
Mr Paterson said GMs also had the potential to free up space for biodiversity, nature and wilderness.
He pointed to research undertaken by a team at Rockefeller University, which found that over the next 50 years, new technology, combined with new agricultural practices across the world, could release an area two-and-a-half times the size of France from cultivation.
In other parts of the world where GM crops are grown, such as the Americas, plants are better protected against pests and insects are better protected against accidentally being sprayed, Mr Paterson said.
“The farmer benefits. The consumer benefits. The environment benefits,” he added.
But while the rest of the world was “ploughing ahead and reaping the benefits of new technologies”, Europe was “missing out” on the use of GMs and “risks being left behind”.
“We cannot afford to let that happen,” he insisted. “The use of GM could be as transformative as the agricultural revolution was. The UK should be at the forefront of that now as it was then.”
GM crops around the world
- Since 1996 there has been a hundredfold increase in the use of GM.
- In 2012, GM crops were grown by 17.3 million farmers in 28 countries on 170 million ha.
- GM crops account for 12% of global arable land – an area seven times the size of Britain.
- But in Europe, less than 0.1% of global GM cultivation occurred in the EU.
GMs are viewed as a vital tool in feeding the global population, which is expected to increase from seven billion now to nine billion by 2050.
“As the world’s population continues to increase, access to these technologies becomes even more important,” said Mr Paterson.
“Public and environmental safety is paramount. The reality is that, in Europe and elsewhere, GM is perhaps the most regulated of all agricultural technologies.”
Maurice Moloney, chief executive of Rothamsted Research, said: “We are very happy to see clear leadership on this issue from secretary of state Paterson.
“GM crops and the use of biotechnology in agriculture has been effectively on hold in Europe for many years.
“The government’s initiative puts the UK back into a leadership position in Europe on this issue and will promote a rational approach to the adoption of technologies that our farmers want and need in order to maintain their competitive position in world agriculture.”
But Mike Childs, of environmental group Friends of the Earth, said there was no evidence GMs will deliver for farmers or food security.
“Despite decades of research, there are still no miracle crops to tackle the challenges agriculture faces, such as climate change, soil degradation, water shortages and growing demand,” he added.
“Where GM crops are grown, they are exacerbating the very intensive farming practices that are part of the problem.
“Ministers must urgently get behind a different approach to food and farming that delivers real sustainable solutions rather than peddling the snake oil that is GM.”
The government’s intention to push GMs up the political agenda comes as Farmers Weekly published a GM survey, which found 61% of UK farmers would grow GM crops if they were legal.