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Opinion- Owen Paterson, MP for North Shropshire and former Defra Secretary

There is overwhelming scientific evidence improving crops by molecular biotechnology techniques is safe.

There is overwhelming scientific evidence improving crops by molecular biotechnology techniques is safe.

 

It is an established and successful technology used widely across the world. Last year was the 20th anniversary of the commercialisation of biotech crops and they were planted by 18 million farmers on 179.7m hectares (488m acres) worldwide, yet only one commercial variety is currently licensed in Europe.

 

Three US national academies have concluded GM crops pose no risk to human health in a major review. They declared an urgent need for publicly funded methods of testing GM products as they are developed. Additionally, 121 Nobel laureates signed a letter in June this year supporting precision agriculture and genetically modified organisms.

 

When I was at Defra, I was called by a Shropshire farmer, telling me he was about to spray his potatoes for the 15th time. Although legal, he knew this could not be good for the environment. He then asked, ‘when is the UK going to be allowed to use GM’?

 

Following a speech I gave at Rothamsted in 2013, I worked with allies in the EU to change the regime which, on many occasions, saw products cleared by rigorous scientific analysis only to be blocked by political decisions. Meanwhile, the rest of the world has been forging ahead.

 

At the Oxford Farming Conference in January, I noted US maize yields have overtaken those of France in the last 20 years.

 

France is missing out on 0.9 tonnes/ha (0.36t/acre) of maize yield across their whole production area of 1.5m ha (3.7m acres).

 

This is a missed yield of 1.4mt of maize which could be worth £150m to French agriculture.

 

If France had kept pace with modern technologies – such as better seed breeding, the rapid adoption of data-driven support tools or the use of GM-technology – yields would be similar to those in the USA.

 

Alternatively, France could be growing the same total maize harvest using 150,000ha (370,000 acres) less, and this land could be used for wildlife, recreation, or forestry.

 

At last, as we move towards Brexit, the UK will be in a position to embrace technology which increases farm productivity and delivers significant environmental benefits, including the reduced use of pesticides, diesel and compaction of soil by machinery.

 

This month, Rothamsted Research has applied for permission to begin GM wheat trials which could boost yields by up to 40 per cent.

 

I hope this will be the start of numerous similar projects so UK agriculture will not just become increasingly productive from biotechnology, but the UK can become the world centre for agricultural research in temperate climates.

 

This research has the potential to become a major generator of wealth and employment for our economy.

 

The Agriculture Minister, George Eustice, has confirmed Government is looking at possible future arrangements for GM crop regulations in light of Brexit.

 

It is time for a resurgent UK, independent of Europe’s hostility to modern technology, to support biotechnology and the latest agricultural science.

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