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.