Owen Paterson: Ignore EU scaremongering, the case for GM food is clear
Advances in agricultural technology have improved farming and economies globally, but UK farmers and consumers are missing out because of the EU’s resistance to advances in biotechnology. I am a keen advocate for GM food as it can feed a growing world population while simultaneously improving the environment.
There is much hype about organic, but few realise that, if the world was to produce all its food based on 1960s methods, we would need additional landmass the equivalent size of three Amazon rainforests to generate the amount of food we consume globally now. Clearly without advances in agritech we will not be able to feed 9.5 billion people in 2050 while sparing the rainforests from destruction.
GM crops are a step up from the centuries-old but very slow practice of selective breeding. GM involves the very precise and safe transfer of genetic material between crop plants, or to them from other species. For example, developers of ‘golden rice’ took genes for the production of beta carotene, the precursor of Vitamin A, from corn and inserted them into rice. This creates a golden coloured rice that could save the lives of thousands of children in Asia who die daily from Vitamin A deficiency.
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The science is clear that GM is safe. The University of California Davis compared health in the 100 billion-plus livestock before GMOs were introduced and after; they found no negative health impacts. It is difficult to imagine a larger statistical sample than this – what more evidence do we need?
GM is good for farmers too. Germany’s Göttingen University found that, since GM was introduced almost two decades ago, global crop yields have increased by 22%, farmer profits are up by 68%, and chemical pesticide use is down by 37%. Ironically, twice as much chemical insecticide is now sprayed onto European farms than North American ones because farmers here are prohibited from using pest-resistant GM crops.
GM also improves soil quality – herbicide-tolerant crops can be sown in a no-till system where farmers no longer plough to suppress weeds. The result is more biomass in the soil and better soil structure. Soil erosion per bushel of maize has decreased by two thirds since the introduction of GM traits.
In a free market, farmers and consumers should have a choice about which crops to grow and which foods to eat. Farmers in the UK, however, are denied this choice because of anti-GM scaremongering in other European countries. It is absurd that our farmers cannot grow better, more sustainable crops because of superstitious NGOs based in Brussels. It is even more outrageous that many of these NGOs – including Friends of the Earth, and organic industry lobby groups – in turn receive millions of Euros in taxpayer-funded EU grants to do this lobbying work.
That the UK has been prevented from adopting GM is one further example of how unscientific policy directed at the EU level is tying our hands domestically. As DEFRA Secretary I worked closely with pro and anti-GM member states on the Agriculture Council to agree to the Cultivation Proposal which would allow some to forge ahead and others to opt out. This would allow the UK to once again be a lead innovator in developing and adopting agricultural technology. Doing so will be good for jobs, the economy, the farmer, the environment and the consumer. There is no time to lose.
Owen Paterson is Conservative MP for North Shropshire and the former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs