Brexit debate

Former Tory food ministers slug it out over Brexit

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

Owen Paterson (left) and James Paice: opposite sides in Brexit debate
Owen Paterson (left) and James Paice: opposite sides in Brexit debate

Related tags United kingdom Eu

Britain’s ability to develop genetically modified (GM) foods was a central theme of a debate on next month’s EU referendum between two former Tory food ministers yesterday (May 12) in London.

Former environment secretary Owen Paterson argued that the UK would be able decide its own regulatory framework and take advantage of advances in new technologies, notably GM, far more effectively once it had thrown off the EU’s restrictive shackles following a Brexit vote on June 23.

Paterson warned that, technologically, the EU was falling dangerously behind other countries around the world. He said it was essential that new techniques were embraced if the rising global population was to be fed.

‘EU museum of farming’

“The EU is the museum of world farming,” ​said Paterson. “If we leave, we can embrace the innovation principle.”

But former food minster Sir James Paice countered that such views were “illusory”,​ given the real political and trading world in which we live.

Following an exit, the UK would still have to comply with EU rules on pesticides, maximum residue limits and GM foods if it hoped to continue exporting products to the continent, Paice argued. But the UK would no longer have any chance of influencing and changing the rules, he added.

He doubted that a future UK government would be interested in fighting agriculture’s corner outside the EU, given the urban bias across the nation and within parliament.

The debate, chaired by Farmers Guardian​ political editor Alistair Driver and titled ‘The EU referendum and what it means for regulation and innovation in UK food and farming’, was organised by the Crop Protection Association as part of its 2016 Annual Convention. It followed a polling update from market research company Populus, which reported on the latest trends in voting intentions for the EU referendum.

Undecided favour the status quo

While the briefing by Populus co-founder Andrew Cooper was off the record, he noted that previous referendum experience showed that large number of undecided voters ultimately tended to come down on the side of the status quo, which would favour continued EU membership.

Other speakers in the debate were Guy Smith, vice president of the National Farmers Union and Huw Jones, professor of translational genomics for plant breeding at Aberystwyth University. Jones regretted that “GM regulations are not working for industry”​.

Jones added: “They’re not working for SMEs​ [small and medium-sized enterprises] or academics who are working on the gene editing of foods.”

However, he thought faster progress would be achieved by the UK remaining in the EU and fighting for a change in the regulation of GM from within – especially given the huge importance of EU export markets to UK cereal farmers, which he valued at around £500M annually.

Paterson pointed to the huge influence of green activists and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on EU policy makers, which prevented many new technologies from being adopted, he claimed.

But Paice suggested that future UK governments – particularly potential left-of centre-Labour administrations – were likely to be more susceptible to pressure from NGOs and tabloid scare stories outside the EU.

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