Answering a question from the audience about “irrational and illogical fears” about GM, Paterson said: “I do think those who sell food can help and everyone in this room can help.
"That is by getting across the incredibly basic fact that six times the surface area of the UK is already under GM crops. So, this idea that it is new and novel and frightening is a nonsense.”
Paterson said millions of animals and human beings consume GM material “without any deleterious effect”.
“This is not a frightening new spooky technology, this is something that is well established in very large parts of the world,” he said. “If we don’t begin to look at it seriously, both at national and at European level, our agricultural industry and, above all, our agri-technology industry will slip further and further behind.”
While recognising strong opposition to GM, Paterson said consumers should be helped to understand that the benefits of GM extend well beyond the food chain. GM food could deliver significant environmental benefits in terms of reduced pesticide use and lower diesel consumption, he said.
But Mairead McGuinness, Member of the European Parliament who serves on the agricultural committee, said initial lack of public research had undermined the public’s faith in the science,
“One of the difficulties we have had with this irrational and illogicial fear of GM is because there was no funding from the public purse initially and suspicion of those who were pushing it. But if we start to publically fund it, it comes with a better reception from the public than if it comes from private companies.”
Ireland is conducting trials of blight-resistant potatoes but whether consumers would want to buy such products is “another question”, she said. But she added: “I get less approached on this issue than I did eight years ago. Things move on, so we may see a move to more acceptability.”
Jim McLaren, past National Farmers Union Scotland president, also worried about the lack of GM research. GM varieties of blight-resistant potatoes and cereal crops able to fix their own nitrogen in UK conditions particularly merited research, he said.
“These are hugely exciting potential opportunities, which, if we don’t research them here, we will end up importing other people’s technologies,” he added.
Lower pesticide use
“In future, consumers were likely to perceive food quality as being defined by lower pesticide use and lower fertiliser use – qualities which GM could help deliver.”
Meanwhile, NFU president Peter Kendall told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday: “I absolutely support the leadership that Owen Paterson is showing on GM.”
“A big biotech research company BASF moved its GM research from Europe to the US last year, showing that Europe was closed for GM business.”
GM science is just one of the topics under discussion in a free webinar to take place on Thursday January 24.
FoodManufacture.co.uk has teamed up with the Institute of Food Science & Technology (IFST) to help move the debate about controversial food science and technology topics onto a more secure scientific footing.
To help achieve this, we have enlisted the expertise of the Food Standards Agency (FSA), consumer watchdog Which? and Leatherhead Food Research (LFR).
To book your place for this free webinar, register here. The webinar, which starts at 11am GMT will run for one hour. Towards the end, our question and answer session will allow you to put questions directly to our key speakers by email.
Alternatively, you can email questions in advance to firstname.lastname@example.org . We will choose the best questions to ask our expert team.