Speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference, the Conservative secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs said: “When we’re talking about innovation, we should also consider GM…We should not be afraid of making the case to the public about the potential benefits of GM beyond the food chain, for example, significantly reducing the use of pesticides and inputs such as diesel.
“As well as making the case at home, we also need to go through the rigorous processes that the EU has in place to ensure the safety of GM crops. I believe that GM offers great opportunities but I also recognise that we owe a duty to the public to reassure them that it is a safe and beneficial innovation.”
Paterson was joined at the conference by environmental author and campaigner Mark Lynas, who was instrumental in the anti-GM campaigns during the 1990s, but has since done a U-turn from his previous position on the issue.
‘Three trillion GM meals eaten’
He began his presentation with an apology for his role in “demonising an important technological option which can be used to help the environment” and said:
“The GM debate is over. It is finished. We no longer need to discuss whether or not it is safe – over a decade and a half with three trillion GM meals eaten there has never been a single substantiated case of harm. You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food.”
Also at the conference, the Soil Association’s innovation director Tom Macmillan responded to Lynas’s and Paterson’s comments, saying that organic farming also has a role in improving farming productivity.
"Farmers and the public have been promised the earth on GM yet the results to date have been poor,” he said.
“…US Government figures show pesticide use has increased since GM crops have been grown there because superweeds and resistant insects have multiplied. Lynas, Paterson and other GM enthusiasts must beware of opening floodgates to real problems like this."
Meanwhile, Friends of the Earth’s senior food and farming campaigner Clare Oxborrow said in a statement that GM crops were not the solution to today’s food challenges.
"They are largely being developed to benefit multinational biotech firms that are gaining control of the seed industry, not to feed poor people in developing countries.
"World food production needs a radical overhaul, but this should be based on less intensive practices that increase agricultural diversity, deliver resilience to the impacts of climate change and benefit local communities.”
Lynas also argued that control of GM crops by a handful of large corporations is an issue that anti-GM campaigners have encouraged, by pushing for highly complex (and expensive) regulatory processes before GM crops can be given the go-ahead.
“Biotechnology has not been stopped, but it has been made prohibitively expensive to all but the very biggest corporations. It now costs tens of millions to get a crop through the regulatory systems in different countries,” he said.
“…There is a depressing irony here that the anti-biotech campaigners complain about GM crops only being marketed by big corporations when this is a situation they have done more than anyone to help bring about.”