On Wednesday, politicians from both the Conservative and Labour party said that the controversial genetically modified (GM) food crops could help to hugely increase food production to meet the growing populations and consumption.
Agriculture minister Jim Paice, speaking at the yearly Oxford Farming Conference, said that the promised benefits of GM foods, which would need less pesticides, fresh water or less nitrogen fertiliser than non-GM foods could not be ignored, because of the pressure on resources and land and the demand for food.
Paice said, “GM is not the answer to everything, but in the foreseeable future we’ll have nitrogen-fixing wheat – if that isn’t going to be a major development I don’t know what is,
“It’s going to be a big challenge for the industry and consumers as to whether they are prepared to welcome that for the major environmental gains against the concerns people have against GM.”
The top theme at the conference was “sustainable intensification” of farming. Paice stated that the UK wanted the EU to agree to raise restrictions on trials and the sale of GM products, so countries similar to the UK could “do its own thing” so “we can use this technology where appropriate”.
However, he explained that supermarkets needed to take the lead on introducing GM food for sale more widely before the general public, restaurants, restaurant insurance providers and suppliers will get behind GM foods. “Whatever the government says about, GM the public will never believe it – but perversely they believe very strongly that what goes on a supermarket shelf is good to eat and safe to eat,”
Labour’s shadow environment secretary, Mary Creagh, called for scientists to explain the benefits of GM food better, and told the Guardian, “We have to keep an open mind on this. I don’t think we should ignore the role science should play in tackling environmental challenges.”
Creagh said that there needs to be more joint private and public funding for research, especially at a European level – suggesting the multi-lateral collaboration in industries like defence.
“We need a sensible debate about how we meet the challenges of sustainability, about the real potential of novel crops.”
Direct action by protestors, have in the past stopped farming leaders calling for more trials of GM crops in the UK. At the moment, a three-year trial of potatoes resistant to nematode worms is underway in Yorkshire under strict security, on the condition that they will not be fed to animals or humans.
On the other hand, critics say it is not possible to make sure than GM crops do not spread across wider environment from trial sites, and warn that supporters of GM food have frequently over-promised pros of the technology and underplayed the risks.
Director of GeneWatch UK, Helen Wallace said, “US farmers are battling superweeds and superpests as GM technology is proving unsustainable and more weeds and pests become resistent due to growing GM crops,
“Valuable GM-free markets have been lost to them and conventional and organic farmers have paid a heavy price. Britain will benefit if it maintains and enhances its diverse farming system and keeps its markets GM-free.”
The devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales have separately banned GM trails.