POLITICS

GM Crops 'Will Benefit UK' Says Environment Secretary Owen Paterson

20/06/2013 07:56 BST
PA
File photo dated 27/2/2013 of Environment Secretary Owen Paterson as green groups have warned against a new push towards genetically modified crops ahead of a speech by the Environment Secretary in which he is set to give strong backing to the technology.

Environment Secretary Owen Paterson is set to reopen the controversy over genetically modified crops with a speech extolling its benefits.

Mr Paterson, who has previously expressed his backing for GM, will say that government, scientists and industry "owe a duty to the British public to reassure them that GM is a safe, proven and beneficial innovation" for farmers and consumers.

He will claim that there are potentially significant economic and environmental benefits to growing GM produce, including increasing yields, protecting crops from disease and reducing the use of pesticides and chemicals.

But opponents of GM say it contributes to intensive farming practices and pesticide use that are environmentally damaging and that it will not tackle problems facing agriculture or deliver secure food supplies for the world's growing population.

The only benefits are for the large agricultural businesses that develop and sell the technology, they claim.

Mr Paterson will tell representatives from industry, science and the media: "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."

And he will suggest that using cultivated land more efficiently could free up space for wildlife.

But Europe is "missing out" on the technology, which is now used on 12% of arable land around the world, and which globally farmers are growing, governments are licensing and consumers are buying, he will warn.

"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."

He will call for the UK to be at the forefront of developing GM technology.

There is just one active GM crop trial in the UK, for wheat that has been engineered to contain a gene from peppermint that deters aphids and attracts their predator, a parasitic wasp.

There are no commercial crops grown in this country, but livestock is commonly reared on imported feed which has been genetically modified.

The Environment Secretary's speech follows a recent intervention by Prime Minister David Cameron, in which he said there was a need to take a new look at GM food as part of efforts to make the UK a pro-science country.

But the move looks set to reopen a bitter debate over the use of genetically modified organisms, with green groups claiming it will not deliver the promised benefits and will prove a distraction from more sustainable ways of improving food security and agriculture in developing countries.

Friends of the Earth's head of policy, research and science Mike Childs said: "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.

"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."

Peter Melchett, policy director of organic campaign group Soil Association, said: "Owen Patterson's GM dream will make it harder to feed the world.

"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."

Environmental adviser and author Tony Juniper said: "If you look at the alleged objectives of commercialisation of GM - environmental benefits and food security - these things can be achieved in better, more secure and durable ways through other routes."

While he said he was not against GM in principle, he suggested that to believe a technology could alleviate all the problems faced by agriculture, from water and resource scarcity to climate change, was "naive at best".

"It's going to require a broad and integrated set of solutions to sort these problems out and, if anything, GM could be a bit of a distraction."

He warned that the use of broad-spectrum herbicides that killed off all plants except for the crop that was genetically-modified to be resistant to the chemical reduced wildlife diversity in the landscape.

Experience from other countries showed that after a number of years weeds had become resistant to the herbicides used on GM crops, requiring increased use of chemicals, he added.

Tackling the issue of food waste had to be "top of the list" in increasing productivity and food security, with as much as 50% of farmed land globally being used to grow crops that were ultimately wasted, he said.

Mr Paterson's move has been welcomed by scientists.

Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council chief executive Douglas Kell said: "GM is one tool in a range of options that can help us to tackle complex problems, such as the need to produce enough food for a growing population with fewer inputs.

"In some cases, a GM approach could offer a way forward and without it we would risk blocking a solution to major global issues. This signal of support helps to keep doors open that could help us in an ever-changing future, " he said.

Professor Maurice Moloney, institute director and chief executive at Rothamsted Research, said: "GM crops and the use of biotechnology in agriculture has been effectively on hold in Europe for many years.

"Meanwhile, our trading partners, through biotechnology, have improved yields, protected the agricultural environment, reduced pesticide use and created many new jobs.

"This has been discouraging for British and European science as much of the technology was invented here.

"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."