British environment secretary demands ‘informed’ debate on GM foods

Owen Paterson says ‘era of complacency’ about food production must come to an end

Britain’s environment secretary Owen Paterson views a genetically modified crop trial during a visit to Rothamsted crop research station in  Hertfordshire, on Thursday. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

Britain’s environment secretary Owen Paterson views a genetically modified crop trial during a visit to Rothamsted crop research station in Hertfordshire, on Thursday. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

Fri, Jun 21, 2013, 01:00

Millions of children have died, or gone blind despite the existence of a genetically-modified rice that could have helped them, the British environment secretary has said. The product was blocked by anti-GM campaigners.

In an outspoken declaration in favour of GM foods, Owen Paterson demanded “a more informed” debate about GM, saying “the era of complacency about food production must come to an end”.

The world’s population would reach nine billion by 2050 and could not be fed without “sustainable intensification” – which must rely on the use of GM crops, he told scientists at Rothamsted crop research station in Hertfordshire.

His speech drew strong support from scientists including Maurice Moloney, the head of the Rothamsted centre, Britain’s most important agricultural research unit. Saying Mr Paterson had shown “clear leadership”, Monaghan-born Dr Moloney said the use of bio-technology had been put “on hold in Europe for many years”.

Mr Paterson’s speech would “promote a rational approach to the adoption of technologies that our farmers want and need in order to maintain their competitive position in world agriculture”, he said.

In his speech, Mr Paterson said a GM rice variety containing Vitamin A had been blocked by protests, even though it could help to stop 500,000 children going blind, or dying due to vitamin deficiency.

The Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development and the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation have warned that food production must rise by 60 per cent over the next 40 years to meet demand.

Despite years of fears about “Frankenstein foods”, Mr Paterson said, the British public must be convinced that GM “is a safe, proven and beneficial innovation”.

“The political debate here in Britain in recent decades has been based on a false premise: that we can either produce more or look after the environment. The truth is we need to do both and we won’t be able to do so unless we embrace innovation in all areas – agriculture, agronomy, commerce and technology.”


‘Ploughing ahead’
Pointing to the changes in the 50 years from 1967, Mr Paterson said production rose by 115 per cent, but the amount of land devoted to agriculture rose by only 8 per cent.

“If we tried to support today’s population using the production methods of the 1950s, instead of farming 38 per cent of all land, we would need to use 82 per cent,” he declared.

Comparing the attitude of the European Union with the rest of the world, Mr Paterson said GM food production had grown 100-fold since 1996 outside the EU.

“While the rest of the world is ploughing ahead and reaping the benefits of new technologies, Europe risks being left behind. We cannot afford to let that happen.”