GM even safer than conventional food, says environment secretary

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

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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.

Global GM

Last year about 170 million hectares of GM crops were cultivated in 28 countries. Proponents argue that about half of the GM crops grown worldwide are produced by resource poor farmers. Apart from the US, the world's leading growers are Brazil, Argentina, Canada and India.

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.

Owen Paterson speech at Rothamsted 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.

"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.

EU spud spat

Only two commercial GM products have so far been licensed, and neither of them was for human consumption.

One was a type of potato called Amflora developed by German chemical firm BASF. It had been modified to produce more of a type of starch useful for industrial processes.

But in January this year, BASF announced it was withdrawing the product and ending development of all its GM potato varieties.

The commercially grown GM is a type of maize made by Monsanto. Modified to make it resistant to pests, it is mainly grown in Spain for animal feed.

"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.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    @30 "Prove it"

    Waistlines, diabetes, cancer rates, alzheimer's and all the other metabolic syndrome diseases.

    Yes, there are only correlations and dead rats not cast-iron "proof", but you could always volunteer as a guinea pig!

    If you don't want to test GM food, you can still become a guinea pig by switching to a paleo diet and watching your health improve!

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    Pte Sector
    Agreed and they have not been a risk free and unqualified success either stop thinking how much money you can make and look at the long term good if that includes more people like me who don't have children to over populate so much the better

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    Who would have thought that the badger-killer, buzzard-killer, fox hunting, bee-hating, climate change-denier, Owen Paterson would be pro-GM?

    The only shocking thing is that he is meant to be protecting the environment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    This is nothing more than large scale gambling with our health for the sake of the profits of huge companies. NO! A million times NO! Not ever under any circumstances should GM go ahead, not even if it is proved safe. We managed long enough without GM and don't need big business controlling the growing of crops.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    Existing technology in regards food production allows us to feed more than the world would naturally. Perhaps we should ban these technologies as well? And I wonder how many of the people leaving negative comments will change their mind about GM food when the price of food steadily increases due to the fact the world population will continue to grow and the food pruduction will not?

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    65 Also how do we know they are safe?? if the long term dangers haven't been assessed.

    Allow them to be sold to the public only after the people who are pushing them have actually been using them themselves for several years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    I think the level of stupidity of the top rated comments, which are apparently most representative of the views of the BBC readership go to show what's wrong with this country. I have not heard one good reason why we should not adopt GM crops nor of one adverse health benefits.

    "Big business will make more profit so let the young children go blind instead" ?!??!

    Give me strength.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    The really big problem with GM will occur when disease rapidly evolves to target the GM stuff, which it will.
    The potato famine was caused by the use of only one strain of potato, which was susceptible to blight. If we only have the one patented strain, if farmers cannot produce the seed themselves, but have to buy it and then it fails, there will be no food.
    Diversity is needed, not gm patents.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    Another move by the party of vested interest to defy the will of the reasonable man. Why is it not obvious to everybody that hybridisation is best left to nature. Oil giants have brought our planet close to disaster and still we bow to the almighty dollar again over GM. Not on OUR planet say I and I believe the majority of ordinary folk are with me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    The first thing to do is to sort out food waste. We currently chuck out about a third of the food we produce. Any advantages GM crops may bring are far away in the future after years of trials and research with no guarantees for public and environmental safety in the meantime.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    If the Tories do indeed believe in 'choice' in it's true meaning rather than cynically hiding behind the term to justify their own rights above the rights of others then they will of course be giving me and millions like me the choice to opt out of their rush towards monoculture and the destruction of environmental diversity essential for a sustainable planet. Environmental terrorism, nothing less

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    Like climate change the burden of proof is on scientists to PROVE 100% that it will be dangerous.

    Until then we should be happy to emit CO2 and eat GM crops. By default we should assume both are safe. The burden of proof is on scientists to prove it is dangerous.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    We have to look at the scientific facts and bring reason into this argument instead of blurting out headlines of which ever newspaper you read.

    GM crops are more protected against pests and disease requiring less fertiliser and pesticides(Which could help our bee population).
    However it is known that there is a collusive oligopoly controlling GM crops and patents which can stranglehold farmers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    GM techniques are used to get changes to the organism that couldn't occur naturally. Fish cannot breed with plants so traits like frost resistance cannot get into potatoes for instance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    The BBC should investigate the role of lobbyist and companies like Monsanto behind this report. The public have already made it pretty clear that they prefer whole foods and that we should not be messing with nature.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    The GM companies manufacture seeds in the lab.
    GM crops cannot produce seed.

    PRO GM PEOPLE - you don't UNDERSTAND the argument so you can stop discussing it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    23 spam spam spam spam
    "GM crops have long term dangers that have not been assessed."

    Then how do you know, if they have not been assessed?

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    Re 30 - Lets turn this on its head and you show me genetic research relating to the metabolic interaction that GM crops have on individual populations, comparing one food stuff with another. Bit complex and time consuming I suspect as you would need isolation and 100 years - so asking for proof is nonsense as the outcomes will be played out over generations and denied association is easy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    Personally I don't believe a dammed word from anyone who has anything to do with government because so far it's all been proved to be either nonsense or down right lies! What's the reason for this push then, is it that a certain someone might have a future finger of theirs in the GM pie?

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    As long as there's very clear labelling on packaging informing shoppers that GM food is included, then I'll be happy to stay well clear of it. It's the insidious slipping in of these foodstuffs which disturbs me. I just don't want the risk of anything like that affecting me on a genetic level.


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