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Is GM controversy back on the political radar?

John Hess | 14:05 UK time, Friday, 14 January 2011

GM crops

It's been off the political radar for a few years now. But the contentious issue of allowing our farmers to grow genetically modified crops is about to resurface.

On a cold January morning, cereal farmer John Charles-Jones is preparing for the warmer Spring days ahead Soon the heavy soils in the fields around his farm in the Woodborough Valley north of Nottingham, will start to yield oil seed rape and wheat.

Over recent years, he has been won over by the GM argument.

"What farmers need is the choice to be able to use the technology. Farmers rely on science completely from the seed we put in the ground to the fertilisers and the sprays we use to protect the crops. Everything is science-led. It just seems a natural extension to use another tool in the armoury," he told me.

GM protestor in 2000

A GM protestor in 2000

During the Labour years, there were 415 separate trials growing GM crops on selected British farms. Some trial areas were raided by protesters and GM crops destroyed.

But by last year only two crop trials - growing potatoes - were still continuing. While the USA, China and Brazil allow the use of GM crops, there are still tight restrictions in the European Union.

Now the Conservative MP Mark Spencer -a farmer himself - wants the Coalition to ditch those GM curbs.

"Tell me how about people have from died from eating GM food in the States? None. More people have died from peanut allergies, but no-one suggests we ban peanuts."

The Sherwood MP from Nottinghamshire secured a parliamentary debate on the issue to find out the latest government thinking. The response from the DEFRA minister James Paice was revealing.

"The government is close to finalising our overall policy on GM. It is a sensitive area and obviously there are many views," he said.

"Because of climate change it could become far more relevant in this country."

If the government's clearing the way to allow GM crops, it can expect rigorous opposition.

"I don't think you can say it's intrinsically safe," says Richard Mallender, a Green Party councillor in Rushcliffe, near Nottingham.

"These big agri concerns are killing the soil... and they're making the soil less sustainable in the longer term."

The UN has warned that climate change and a rising global population will result in much higher food prices.

In China, Brazil and the USA, the use of GM crops is now standard practice. Here - as in the rest of the European Union - there remains strict limitations on GM.

"The fact is that 14 million farmers around the world are now growing GM crops.That tells its own story," said Mark Spencer.

Back at Woodborough Park Farm, John Charles-Jones is putting his trust in the scientists.

"There's emotion, science and politics all wrapped up in this debate. I would be the first to say the science has to be right. But if the scientists are happy, then I am happy."

But when this controversial issue graps the headlines again, that will be a sign that not every is happy. Far from it.


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