Science & Environment

GM even safer than conventional food, says environment secretary

gm crop
Image caption While there have been several field trials, only two GM crops have been approved for commercial growing in the EU

GM crops are probably safer than conventional plants, according to the Environment Secretary.

Making the strongest call yet for the adoption of the technology, Mr Paterson told the BBC that that GM has significant benefits for farmers, consumers and the environment.

He said the next generation of GM crops offers the "most wonderful opportunities to improve human health."

But green groups say this new push is dangerous and misguided.

The environment secretary has never made a secret of his support for GM technology. Speaking to the BBC ahead of a major speech in favour of GM, Mr Paterson said it was being adopted by the rest of the world and the UK and Europe risked being left behind.

He dismissed criticisms that GM could pose problems to human health.

"The use of more precise technology and the greater regulatory scrutiny probably make GMOs even safer than than conventional plants and food," he said.

"The EU chief scientist Anne Glover has said it pretty bluntly - there is no substantiated case of any adverse impact on human health on animal health or on environmental health."

Persuade the public

Mr Paterson said that GM offers benefits not just to UK consumers and farmers but holds a great deal of promise especially in the developing world. He cited the example of Golden Rice, a GM variety that has been modified to have increased levels of vitamin A.

This helps prevent blindness in young children especially in deprived environments. But even though the rice was developed in 1999, it has yet to be grown commercially.

"Every attempt to deploy has been thwarted and in that time seven million children have gone blind or died," said Mr Paterson.

In his speech on Thursday morning at Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, Mr Paterson argued that the government, along with industry and the scientific community "owe a duty to the British public to reassure them GM is a safe, proven and beneficial innovation".

The European Union has been deadlocked on GM for a number of years. Only two crops have been approved for commercial growing - another seven are awaiting the green light.

Image caption Mr Paterson says that GM was "safe, proven and beneficial"

In the speech, Mr Paterson suggested that member states which are open to the safe use of GM crops should not be prevented from moving forward with the technology.

"We need evidence-based regulation and decision-making in the EU. Consumers need accurate information in order to make informed choices. The market should then decide if a GM product is viable," he said.

"Farmers are also consumers but right now that market is not functioning and they are being denied choice. That's why I want to explore ways of getting the EU system working, as this will encourage further investment and innovation."

But critics have been quick to condemn Mr Paterson's view that GM is a "safe, proven and beneficial innovation".

Soil Association policy director Peter Melchett said that GM would make it harder, not easier, to feed the world.

"The British Government constantly claim that GM crops are just one tool in the toolbox for the future of farming. In fact GM is the cuckoo in the nest. It drives out and destroys the systems that international scientists agree we need to feed the world.

Media captionOwen Paterson: GM presents wonderful opportunity

"We need farming that helps poorer African and Asian farmers produce food, not farming that helps Bayer, Syngenta and Monsanto produce profits," he added.

Kirtana Chandrasekaran, from Friends of the Earth, said: "We have loads of other types of farming science that are delivering, that are, through conventional breeding, giving us drought tolerant crops.

"They are starved of funding... We are continuing to flog GM when it's not delivering what we need."

Mr Paterson's stance was backed by a number of scientists, including Professor Dale Sanders, the Director of the John Innes Centre in Norwich. He wants to see a greater focus on solving global problems such as malnutrition rather than arguments about one technology or another.

"Evaluation of potential scientific solutions to agriculture should be evidence-based," he said.

"The overwhelming global conclusion regarding the deployment of GM technologies in the field is that the risks associated with the technologies are infinitesimally small."

Mr Paterson's speech comes in the same week that the National Farmers Union warned that the UK's wheat crop could be 30% smaller than last year because of extreme weather.

The environment secretary said that GM could "combat the damaging effects of unpredictable weather and disease on crops".

The technology has "the potential to reduce fertiliser and chemical use, improve the efficiency of agricultural production and reduce post-harvest losses. If we use cultivated land more efficiently, we could free up space for biodiversity, nature and wilderness."

At present there are no commercial GM crops grown in the UK although cattle, sheep and pigs are often fed on imported GM. There is only one active GM trial of wheat that has been modified to deter aphids.

Follow Matt on Twitter.

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites