UK: Owen Paterson ‘right on GM’ says NFU

File photo dated 27/2/2013 of Environment Secretary Owen Paterson as green groups have warned agains

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. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Wednesday June 19, 2013. See PA story ENVIRONMENT GM. Photo credit should read: Rui Vieira/PA Wire - Credit: PA

The Government is right to lead the discussion on GM technology and highlight why it can be used to help farmers produce more food, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) says.

Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said GM was a “safe, proven and beneficial innovation” and called for the UK to lead on the technology.

The NFU called for a clear framework to enable farmers to use GM technology.

NFU President Peter Kendall said: “I applaud Owen Paterson for the leadership he is showing on this issue.

“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.

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“Rightly so, farmers fear being left behind. As Mr Paterson said, I also want British farmers to be able to develop the latest technologies so they can reap economic and environmental benefits.

“I welcome his commitment to getting the EU approvals system working. The Environment Secretary also asked all interested parties to help him and said he would back them in return. I, and the NFU, will take up this challenge.”

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Mr Paterson reignited a debate over the controversial technology in a major speech and attacked critics who described GM produce as “Frankenfoods”, insisting the crops could have important environmental benefits and help save lives in poorer countries.

The Environment Secretary called for changes in the way the crops are regulated in Europe, warning that British farmers and scientists were being forced to operate with “one hand tied behind their back”.

Mr Paterson said: “I believe that it’s time to start a more informed discussion about the potential of genetically modified crops.

“A discussion that enables GM to be considered in its proper overall context with a balanced understanding of the risks and benefits.”

Mr Paterson said that major European studies had concluded that there was “no scientific evidence associating GMOs (genetically modified organisms) with higher risks” for the environment or safety.

They also concluded “the use of more precise technology and the greater regulatory scrutiny probably makes GMOs even safer than conventional plants and food”.

The Environment Secretary said: “As with all technologies, public and environmental safety is paramount. The reality is that in Europe and elsewhere, GM is perhaps the most regulated of all agricultural technologies.

“There are some that describe GM crops as ‘Frankenfoods’, deliberately termed to imply that they pose a risk to human health and the environment.

“The truth is that products are subject to extensive testing and development in tightly controlled conditions - progressing from laboratory, to glasshouse, to field trials only when it’s safe to do so.”

Because GM food could be produced more efficiently, Mr Paterson suggested land could be returned to nature instead of farmed and pest or disease-resistant GM crops could also benefit wildlife.

“We are currently debating the effects of pesticides on bees and other insects. In other parts of the world where GM crops are grown, plants are better protected against pests and insects are better protected against accidentally being sprayed,” he said.

“The farmer benefits. The consumer benefits. The environment benefits.”

Mr Paterson spoke at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire, where he toured the only 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.

He said that an area seven times the size of the UK was being used to cultivate GM crops worldwide, but Europe risked being left behind.

Mr Paterson said: “We need evidence-based regulation and decision-making in the EU. Consumers need accurate information in order to make informed choices. The market should then decide if a GM product is viable.”

European reluctance to embrace GM technology was having a detrimental impact on poorer countries, where GM crops could be most beneficial in terms of feeding a growing population or tackling disease, he suggested.

“Europe’s attitude to GM is interpreted as a sign that the technology is dangerous,” he said.

“And this can generate unwarranted resistance to the technology in the parts of the world that most need access to agricultural innovations.”

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.

Mr Cameron’s official spokesman told reporters at a regular Westminster media briefing: “The Prime Minister certainly thinks there is a role for GM crops.

“He thinks there is a real risk of the EU being left behind as other parts of the world reap the benefits of new technologies.”

He added: “As the Secretary of State is saying, there is no credible basis for the argument that is sometimes made that GM crops are inherently unsafe. But it is right to keep reassuring people that decisions will continue to be made on the latest and best scientific advice.”

The spokesman declined to discuss the question of whether Mr Cameron was willing to eat GM food himself or to feed it to his children.

He said: “Rather than going into the PM’s shopping basket, I have made the point that shoppers, whoever they are - including the Prime Minister - can have confidence in the food that is on sale, because we have stringent regulatory structures.”

The Government’s move was criticised by green groups, who claim GM will not deliver the promised benefits and will prove a distraction from more sustainable ways of improving food security and agriculture in developing countries.

Greenpeace UK’s chief scientist Dr Doug Parr said: “It’s a bit hard to take lessons on science from a climate-change sceptic.

“Paterson’s inability to see the whole picture means he is missing the revolution in non-GM biotechnology which is making a real difference to lives now, while the GM lobbyists just carry on making promises.

“Paterson should be asking what works rather than blindly following agribusiness propaganda.

“The international consortium of research centres that kicked off the ‘Green Revolution’ has used non-GM techniques to produce dozens of varieties of drought-tolerant maize, increasing African farmers’ yields by 20-30%.

“A host of other successes include blight-resistant potatoes and crops enriched with vitamin A, iron and other essential nutrients.

“Closer to home, a recent scientific study demonstrated that the package of biotechnologies chosen by Western Europe to grow maize is out-producing the GM-led package chosen by the US. GM’s promises are being fulfilled, but not by GM.”

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

“The British Government constantly claim that GM crops are just one tool in the toolbox for the future of farming.

“In fact, GM is the cuckoo in the nest.

“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.”

Pete Riley, from campaign group GM Freeze, said the Prime Minister would not be able to seek changes to EU rules without the agreement of Wales and Scotland.

He 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.

“Rather than making blanket calls for more GM, the PM needs to be very clear with voters about what he intends to do and why he is rejecting scientific evidence gathered right here in the UK that GM cultivation harms hard-pressed farmland wildlife.

“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 PM to explain why his Government believes UK farmers should put their incomes at risk by growing crops no one wants to eat.”

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