ENVIRONMENT secretary Owen Paterson courageously urged the UK to adopt the use of genetically modified (GM) crops yesterday. His speech has been widely criticised, but he is right. If UK agriculture is going to be competitive, the government must now take key long-term decisions on food production and land management.
GM is not 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. Why? Last year, unprecedented weather patterns led to both drought and flooding in the UK, leaving farmers, landowners and land managers facing desperately difficult circumstances.
According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, wheat yield last year was 14 per cent lower than in 2011 – equivalent to a loss of £308m. Climate change means farmers face continued harsh conditions. These are coupled with an ever-increasing demand for food from a soaring population. GM can help maintain increased yields, produce healthier livestock, and lead to greater protection of the environment.
The UK has one of the best traditions of agricultural technology research in the world. This sector already makes a significant contribution to our national and rural economies. But the possibilities are huge. The total global economic benefit from GM crops was estimated at $14bn (£9bn) in 2010. And in 2011, almost 17m farmers around the world planted GM crops, up from 15m in 2010.
Studies by Reading University indicate that European producers’ profit margins would increase by €443m (£378.1m) to €929m if farmers were allowed to grow GM crops. The EU’s approach to GM, therefore, needs urgent change if we are not to lose the best of British talent and investment abroad.
At present, EU strategy is scientifically-led but becomes highly politicised at national level. It would take at least ten years for a product to be approved by EU committees in a process that is so onerous it led German chemical giant BASF to abandon the GM market in Europe last year and move to the US. It is hugely expensive – in large part due to legal fees – to even trial GM products in the EU. We risk leaving UK farmers at a competitive disadvantage.
What’s more, misinformation and scaremongering has led to a public mistrust of GM and its uses. Senior European Commission official Georg Häusler has spoken of the innovation-hostile environment in EU farming policy – despite over two trillion meals containing GM ingredients having been consumed worldwide.
Consumers should have the freedom to choose to consume GM products, and farmers and landowners should be able to choose whether they produce using GM. Those who choose not to make use of GM should be equally protected from any potential excessive seed or pollen transfer from those who have adopted these technologies. The US, Spain and Argentina have all shown that GM and non-GM can co-exist harmoniously. It is time for the UK to follow suit.
Harry Cotterell is president of the Country Land and Business Association and farms in Herefordshire.