Suffolk: GM crops could be important ‘tool’ to cope with population boom and extreme weather

Robert Baker is pictured at Crossways Farm, Elmswell

Robert Baker is pictured at Crossways Farm, Elmswell

Genetically modified crops could be a key part of an agricultural revolution needed to increase yields and mitigate poor weather and climate change, Suffolk farmers believe.

Farming unions, together with cereal and beet producers, last night said “heads could not be buried in the sand forever” and claimed it was vital that science “was given a chance”.

Their statement follows reports that the Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, is expected to use a speech next week to outline the start of a new government approach to GM.

Brian Finnerty, National Farmers Union (NFU) communications advisor for East Anglia, said: “Our view on GM has always been that we need to make science-based decisions, which is why we’ve always supported trials taking place and are strongly opposed to any attempts to sabotage them. We need to give science the chance to prove itself to see what benefits it could bring and make a decision on that.”

He added: “We have seen some very, very challenging weather conditions over the last few years. We know from the survey we did this week the impact that the weather is already having on the potential of our wheat and cereal harvest this year. With the challenge we are facing, there is a very strong argument that we need every tool available in the box to cope with that and GM could be one of those solutions.”

Mr Finnerty said the UK risked being left behind, with many countries that grow GM on a day-to-day basis no longer regarding the crops as “new technology”.

He added: “There has been very good work done at the John Innes Centre at the moment and other centres of excellence across the region. We have got some very good scientists working on them at the moment. We don’t want to lose them, we need them to realise there’s going to be a good future in this country developing new crops.”

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Mr Finnerty said he believed the public would accept GM if the science could demonstrate benefits, such as a reduction in pesticide use and being drought and flood resistant.

Colin Clifton-Brown, of Little Bradley Farm near Haverhill, said: “It’s a bit of a controversial subject but I don’t really know why. My view is that we need to increase production and over the last 15 years we haven’t really seen a huge increase in yield. If we’re going to feed nine billion people by 2050 then we need to increase yields markedly, so we have got to look at these new technologies. GM is certainly is one of them.”

Mr Clifton-Brown, who sits on the NFU’s cereals committee for the eastern region, admitted many farmers would be nervous about hosting a GM trial for security reasons.

He added: “We’re obviously going to have to have farm-scale trials but they need to be very carefully sited as we don’t want contamination to neighbouring land. I’m not advocating wholesale planting of GM crops here, there and everywhere, but we need to carefully look at it.”

Robert Baker, of Crossways Farm, Elmswell, said he believed the technology is safe but should not be forced on the consumer. The NFU sugar board member added: “It needs to be properly debated. The environment secretary is right to raise it. We have a burgeoning population that needs to be fed efficiently and safely - safe for the environment and safe for the consumer.

“We can’t keep our head in the sand forever.”

Nationally ministers are hopeful of building support in Europe for a weakening of controls, allowing farmers to grow GM. Opponents fear that the technology could foster stronger pests and diseases.

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