UK envoy champions GM crops

16 Apr, 2013 02:00 AM
You and I are probably wearing shirts made from GM cotton ...

COMMUNITY attitudes towards cropping biotechnology are shifting in the European region, where resistance has been particularly staunch, says British Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary Owen Paterson.

Currently no genetically modified (GM) crops are grown commercially in the UK - although some imported GM commodities like soya are used mainly for animal feed and in some food products.

The UK’s GM cropping policy makes protection of human health and the environment overriding priorities to any decisions to grow crops, and safety assessments are underpinned by the UK’s Food Standards Agency and the European Food Safety Authority.

Mr Paterson has recently gone out on a limb to push GM crops. He’s described anti-scientific fears about threats to human health and environmental safety from GM crops as “complete nonsense” and labelled those who oppose the technology as “humbugs”.

Speaking to Fairfax Agricultural Media while on an agricultural fact-finding tour of Australia this week - which included talks with CSIRO about its research into GM wheat and other varieties - Mr Paterson said understanding of GM crops in the UK was slowly evolving and improving.

“Since I’ve opened up about GMs, and my views are now very clear, there hasn’t been a huge deluge of criticism,” he said.

“The inevitable people were abusive and they always are; I’m not too fussed about that. But generally I think people are much more relaxed.

“You and I are probably wearing shirts made from GM cotton because 80 per cent of the world’s cotton is made from GM.

“My standard party trick is to ask people, ‘do you feel uncomfortable?’, and no one has yet put their hand up.”

Mr Paterson said some key GM facts - in particular about animal feed - were not well recognised or realised in the general community.

He said non-GM stock feed cost about 100 pounds per tonne more than GM feed in the UK, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to buy the required volumes.

Mr Paterson said 85pc of the nation’s cattle feed was GM and, “I’ve yet to find a single human being who has been affected in any way by eating meat from animals that have consumed GM products”.

“I see potentially there are huge gains for us from GMs, real environmental gains and real productivity gains,” he said.

“We’re heading from 7 billion people to 9 billion people and everyone needs to wake up – that we need to increase productivity.

“We’ve got to have another green revolution now – GM is not the only tool in the draw but it’s going to be a big part of it.”

Mr Paterson spoke at the Oxford Farming Conference in early January this year ahead of former anti-GM cropcampaigner Mark Lynas who made a monumental back-flip, denouncing years of activism that ignored scientific evidence, to demonise plant biotechnology and promote the “Franken-food” myth.

Mr Paterson said the environmental campaigner’s public admission of wrong-doing and retraction of his anti-GM views was “remarkable”.

He said the global evidence about GM crops was clear.

“The last figures I saw there are 17 million farmers cultivating 170 million hectares (of GM crops) in something like 28 different countries,” he said.

“That’s 12 times the geographical area of the UK – GMs are growing at a very rapid rate.

“I was at an agricultural summit in Berlin recently and met the Brazilian minister who said 90pc of Brazilian soya (production) is now GM because it’s bluntly 30pc more cost-effective.

“And they’ve had massive environmental gains because there’s so much less chemical spraying.

“We had a very wet summer last year and some of the big farmers near me said to me, ‘you’re absolutely right to bang on about GM because we just hate the spraying and we know it can’t be good to go on spraying and spraying and spraying but that’s the only tool we’ve got at the moment’.”

Mr Paterson said ultimately the development of GMs and commercial access for UK producers was linked to European Union (EU) regulations.

Currently, EU rules state any GM crop approved for cultivation can be grown anywhere inside the bloc, unless countries have specific scientific reasons for banning their cultivation.

The EU has only approved two GM crops for commercial production with six maize and one soybean varieties awaiting approval.

In comparison, 90 GM crop varieties have been approved for production in the US and 30 in Brazil, while GM canola was introduced commercially in Australia in 2008 when the NSW and Victorian governments lifted their bans. Western Australia followed the next year.

Earlier this year, the European Commission announced plans to reopen debate on draft legislation to allow individual member states to decide if they can grow GM crops.

According to reports, the draft law must be approved by a majority of governments and the European Parliament before becoming law. It was submitted by the Commission in 2010 but blocked by France, Germany and Britain.

EU Health Commissioner Tonio Borg has committed to discussing the issue with the three governments to try and reopen negotiations on the proposal.

“I’ve made it clear we have to negotiate this with other European countries in the EU,” Mr Paterson said.

“But I’ve talked to Commissioner Borg and I’m keen that we try to get the new arrangements in Europe so that countries that do want to grow GM can go ahead and do so, without suffering any penalty or breach of free trade rules on agricultural products.

“But if other countries feel strongly about it that’s up to them.”

Mr Paterson said he was impressed with the CSIRO’s plant breeding research work and would be encouraging closer alliances with UK researchers and industry.

“We’ve made a hell of a lot of good contacts on this trip - not just GM - and I’m very keen to encourage the very closet co-operation between all of our scientists so we can learn from each other,” he said.

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16/04/2013 6:48:23 AM

Well here we go again. UK / Europe are an easy target for extra food production as those folk have an inbred fear of starvation, having experienced it in the past. Until the inevitable "stuff up " by a chemist the food is possibly OK. However the shareholder profit at the expense of the farmer and control of production still need addressing. I find this lot very persuasive in their indecent haste to release their GM genes worldwide.
David Harrison
16/04/2013 11:55:25 AM

What happened to my right to choose the type of food I eat? I have likes and dislikes, some rational, some according to others, not so rational. This in no way should diminish my right to decide what I consume. And yet here we have pro-GM advocates telling me otherwise. Surely society hasn't reached the point where personal choice is being disregarded? This choice should be extended to product labelling so the consumer can make selections and choices based on personal preference. The last person who told me, "eat up, it's good for you" was my mother, and that was a long time ago.
16/04/2013 3:30:21 PM

Same old BS, tell a lie often enough and hope people will believe it. There is indisputable evidence that GM crops are dangerous, consuming GM is also equally as dangerous. Just because animals and people are not dropping over like flies doesn’t deem them as safe. It is past time responsible people woke up to this GM spin and deceit.
Fran Murrell - MADGE
16/04/2013 6:09:21 PM

GM is a dud. 40% of the GM cotton crop in the Indian state of Marashstra failed last year affecting 5 million farmers. In South America rainforest is being cut down to grow GM soy for animal feed in China and Europe. The scientifically proven way to feed the world, agroecology is receiving no attention as it allows farmers to use natural systems to grow crops with a minimum of inputs. Our food system is all about controlling farmers and extracting money from consumers, not feeding people. Here is a referenced blog on the issue unnel-vision-food-locks-hunger
16/04/2013 9:10:58 PM

It is rather unfortunate that health and environmental concerns of of Gm food/ GM crops being debated among scientitifics can be addressed by an envoy so decisively, GM or GE are processes or techniques, the safety depends on the elements or components like a toxin, toxin gene, viral promoter and antibiotic resistance markers used, thus a general statement does not qualify to address any issue. GM technology within industrial settings, in bioreactors is being used to produce drugs e.g. insulin, purified canola oil is used by Americans, problem remains of whole foods and environmenal.
16/04/2013 11:35:23 PM

GM is a new technology, we shouldn't race into it. Scientists may say it is safe, but at one point in time scientists also thought the earth was flat!
17/04/2013 10:31:10 AM

Weren't we also told at one time that the cane toad could be introduced without any negative impacts? GM will be like the introduction of the cane toad.
17/04/2013 6:50:13 PM

It is most disconcerting that South American rainforests are being cut down to permit seed crops etc. to be grown. However, Fran your consideration that this deforestation is proceeding because of GM soy is absolutely wrong. It would be going on with non-GM soy if the GM form were not around. Actually, if soya beans have to be grown then it is better for the environment to use the GM soy rather than the non-GM as it results in more conservation tillage and the use of lesser amounts of weedicide - google J. Fernandez-Cornejo, Ch. Hallahan, R. Nehring, S. Wechsler, and A. Grube
18/04/2013 1:06:06 PM

ggwagga where is the "indisputable evidence that GM crops are dangerous?". It doesnt seem that any government food regulator around the world acknowledges this even in the EU where their health agency has backed the safety. Sounds like BS to me and its time for you to move on. Also the Madge folks should look in our own backyard and look at how GM cotton has revolutionised the industry leading to a greater than 80% decrease in insecticide use. Just take a drive to Moree...its hard to argue with it when the facts are right in front of you.
Bob Phelps
18/04/2013 8:41:51 PM

James: Please provide some hard documentary evidence for the often repeated claim of: "a greater than 80% decrease in insecticide use" in the cotton industry. I've hunted high and low for validation and can find no detailed or substantiated figures. Please give us a reference or two that will stand up to scrutiny.
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