Owen Paterson’s call for the UK to embrace genetically modified crops has polarised opinions, prompting both sharp criticism and declarations of support.
Campaign groups and NGOs such as GM Freeze, Friends of the Earth and the Soil Association warned GM crops were risky and accused the Defra secretary of state of overstating the benefits of GM.
But the National Farmers Union welcomed Paterson’s speech and said it was good to see biotechnology – such as GM – was now high on the political agenda, with the Country, Land and Business Association (CLA) also voicing its support.
“I believe that people should be able to walk into a supermarket and choose whether to buy local organic potatoes or those produced from a blight-resistant GM variety grown in the UK”
Speaking at the Rothamsted Research facility – home to a GM wheat trial – in Hertfordshire today, Paterson said GM crops could deliver significant social, economic and environmental benefits, and the UK should be at the forefront of championing its development and use.
To achieve this, a new debate on GM needed to take place in the UK, which was “more informed” and enabled GM “to be considered in its proper overall context with a balanced understanding of the risks and benefits”, Paterson said.
Paterson said four major supermarkets (Tesco, Sainsbury’s, M&S and The Co-operative Group) had recently announced they were no longer able to guarantee their poultry was fed on non-GM feed, and praised the retailers for their decision. “This was a necessary step and the supermarkets were right to make it absolutely clear that the use of such products in no way constitutes a food safety issue. Such transparency is vital to ensure that consumers are able to make an informed choice.”
He stressed he was not advocating the UK move to GM for every product, but said GM should be one option among many available to producers and consumers.
“I believe that people should be able to walk into a supermarket and choose whether to buy local organic potatoes or those produced from a blight-resistant GM variety grown in the UK. Whatever the product, whatever its origin, people should be confident in the knowledge that it is safe to eat and grown sustainably. Our policy should be based on sound science and strong safeguards.”
Friends of the Earth head of policy, research and science Mike Childs said: “The hyperbole on GM crops is akin to Bernie Madoff’s promises to deliver untold riches – there is no evidence they 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.
“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.”
“Where GM crops are grown, they are exacerbating the very intensive farming practices that are part of the problem”
Mike Childs, Friends of the Earth
GM Freeze’s Pete Riley said: “Changing the regulations on GM crop approvals is not something the UK can do without detailed negotiations with, and consent of, other EU member states, and surely he can’t seek those changes from a UK platform without the agreement of the anti-GM governments in Wales and Scotland.
“Apart from any other considerations, citizens across Europe are unconvinced that GM crops are the way forward, and the UK economy simply cannot afford to ignore the demands of our main food market. GM Freeze has asked the prime minister to explain why his government believes UK farmers should put their incomes at risk by growing crops no one wants to eat.”
Soil Association policy director Peter Melchett said: “We need farming that helps poorer African and Asian farmers produce food, not farming that helps Bayer, Syngenta and Monsanto produce profits.”
NFU chief science and regulatory affairs adviser Dr Helen Ferrier said: “It is significant and very encouraging that crop biotechnology research in the UK and British farmers’ choice to access that technology is now so high on the political agenda.
When the big four lifted bans on chickens fed on GM soy, they said it was because non-GM had become too hard to source. Now their decision to switch to GM has made non-GM feed more expensive…
“Moving from the positive rhetoric to a strategy for enabling R&D, regulatory approval and commercialisation must be the next goal. Clearly Europe is a major stumbling block but solutions must be found quickly if the UK is to deliver the showcase of innovation and productivity that the forthcoming Agri-Tech Strategy is all about.
“Our interest is not about GM as a single technology but having all the best tools available to address the many challenges farmers face in increasing productivity sustainably in all sectors as part of the global supply chain.”
CLA president Harry Cotterell said: “GM isn’t the only solution to food shortages but technological innovation has always been at the heart of UK agriculture and it needs to be part of its future.
“Consumers, farmers and landowners should be given the freedom to choose whether they consume or produce GM.”
As Paterson was giving his speech, Waitrose MD Mark Price told journalists at the opening of a store in Greenwich that GM was “a technology looking for a problem to solve”.