Government’s GM food push draws praise and criticism

By Mike Stones

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Gm crops Agriculture

Europe risks being left behind on GM science while the rest of the world 'ploughs ahead', warned Owen Paterson
Europe risks being left behind on GM science while the rest of the world 'ploughs ahead', warned Owen Paterson
A keynote speech from environment secretary Owen Paterson, urging the widespread adoption of genetically modified (GM) science and crops in Europe, has drawn both praise and criticism.

Paterson used his address at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire yesterday (June 20) to repeat his call for Brussels to back the controversial technology.

“It won’t be long until the population moves from 7bn to 9bn and we’ll have even fewer resources to feed them,”​ said Paterson. “It is our duty to explore technologies like GM because they may hold the answers to the very serious challenges ahead.”

GM food science offered non-chemical solutions to pests and diseases, the ability to fortify food with vitamin A to protect children in developing countries, to develop drought resistant crops and to develop new medicines, he argued.

Europe was missing out

At present, Europe was missing out on the drive to develop GM science, he claimed. “While the rest of the world is ploughing ahead and reaping the benefits of new technologies, Europe risks being left behind. We cannot afford to let that happen. The use of GM could be as transformative as the original agricultural revolution. The UK should be at the forefront of that, now, as it was then.”

GM technology was even safer than conventional technology because it was the subject of so much investigation, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today​ programme. “The use of more precise technology and the greater regulatory scrutiny probably make GMOs even safer than conventional plants and food,”​ he said.

“The EU chief scientist Anne Glover has said it pretty bluntly – there is no substantiated case of any adverse impact on human health on animal health or on environmental health.”

Also, GM crops had been the subject of “the biggest field trial in human history”​ after being grown widely throughout the US for the past 15 years, he added.

Maurice Moloney, chief executive of Rothamsted Research, welcomed the speech, warning that Europe had put GM technology on hold for 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,”​ said Moloney.

National Farmers Union president Peter Kendall praised Paterson’s leadership.“The NFU agrees that the UK, which is the natural home for science research, should be at the forefront of providing agricultural solutions not watching from the sidelines,”​ said Kendall.

The Institute of Food Science & Technology supported Paterson’s call for the scientific and research community to play a key role in the introduction of GM crops through continuing research and ensuring balanced communication. “Only in this way may the benefits that this technology can confer ultimately become available, not least to help feed the world's escalating population in the coming decades,”​ said a spokeswoman.

‘GM is the cuckoo in the nest’

But Peter Melchett, policy director at Soil Association, launched a withering attack on the government’s pro-GM stance. "The British government constantly claims that GM crops are just one tool in the toolbox for the future of farming. In fact GM is the cuckoo in the nest,”​ said Melchett.

“It drives out and destroys the systems that international scientists agree we need to feed the world. We need farming that helps poorer African and Asian farmers produce food, not farming that helps Bayer, Syngenta and Monsanto produce profits.”

Mike Childs, Friends of the Earth’s head of policy, research and science, was equally dismissive.

"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 said, speaking ahead of Paterson’s speech.

“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.”

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