Put GM back on the menu, says environment secretary

Genetically modified crops are safe and effective, says Owen Paterson, and the UK could be a world leader in the technology, to boot.

by Emma Haslett
Last Updated: 20 Jun 2013
Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Owen Paterson is either a brave man or a foolish one, depending on your point of view. For he has decided that it’s time for another push on GM foods, the crop-improving biotechnology which has been a ‘no-go’ area for politicians in the UK and Europe ever since the disastrously botched attempt by the industry to foist it on consumer back in the 90s. Remember all those ‘Frankenfoods’ stories, and protestors destroying test crops?

In a speech later today, Paterson will make what amounts to the strongest statement in support of GM ever from a UK government, saying that the technology offers benefits for consumers, retailers, farmers and the environment, and that the UK should embrace it and push other EU countries to do the same. Furthermore, he believes that the UK has the potential to be a world leader in the next generation of GM technology.

His comments echo those of science minister David Willetts, who recently said that the EU should relax restrictions on GM to avoid ‘becoming a museum of the 20th Century’.

Just to recap, there is a de facto ban on the cultivation of GM crops in most of Europe (the EU has approved only two GM products for human consumption). The position in the UK is rather less draconian, with ongoing research and crop tests underway at several agricultural research centres around the country but no commercial scale cultivation.

This is all in marked contrast to much of the rest of the world, where first-generation GM crops including maize and soya beans have become the norm, with some figures suggesting that they are now grown by 17m farmers across 28 countries - including China and the US. The crops offer increased yields and - because of inbuilt resistance to pests - can result in significantly less pesticide use.

Those in favour cite the growing challenge of feeding the world’s population - set to hit 8bn by 2025 - claiming that developments in GM will not only enable further improvements in yields but will also lead to drought and heat tolerant strains.  These will grow in places where no crops can be grown today, bringing large areas of unproductive land in into agricultural use.

Ranged against them are the claims that GM foods are unsafe to eat - or rather more accurately, that no-one knows for sure whether they are safe or not. Given extensive trials over the last couple of decades - plus the fact that tens of millions of people eat GM every day and have done for years with no obvious ill effects - this position is increasingly hard to maintain. The safety of GM foods has certainly been more thoroughly tested than many other things we eat regularly without a second thought.

Other concerns about GM may have more credibility - the hard to assess risks of gene transfer, and the claims that GM is a western, high-tech, high cost solution to what is essentially a developing world, low-tech problem. There may be some truth in that latter point, but technological advance is the engine of progress in a capitalist society so it seems a little churlish to complain about that. Besides, promoting GM doesn’t preclude continued work on conventional plant breeding and other traditional agricultural techniques as well.

It’s certainly true that the UK is the only European country with a decent track record of research in this field, and we could certainly do with a few more high-tech growth industries to fuel the anaemic recovery.

But it may not matter much one way or the other - experience suggest that this government backs down very quickly in the face of any significant criticism. So if the naysayers can get up any steam, the chances are pretty good that nothing will come of Paterson’s speechifying anyway.

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