Giving a keynote speech at Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, Mr Paterson said the UK was the natural home for scientific research and that the Government would work with companies to overcome any barriers to them setting up here.
Mr Paterson said;
Since 1996 there has been a 100-fold increase in the use of GM. Last year, GM crops were grown by 17.3 million farmers in 28 countries on 170 million hectares. That’s 12 per cent of global arable land – an area around 7 times the size of the United Kingdom.
Farmers wouldn’t grow these crops if they didn’t benefit from doing so. Governments wouldn’t licence these technologies if they didn’t recognise the economic, environmental and public benefits. Consumers wouldn’t buy these products if they didn’t think they were safe and cost effective.
At the moment Europe is missing out. Less than 0.1% of global GM cultivation occurred in the EU. While the rest of the world is ploughing ahead and reaping the benefits of new technologies, Europe risks being left behind. We cannot afford to let that happen. The use of GM could be as transformative as the original agricultural revolution was. The UK should be at the forefront of that now, as it was then.
I want the UK to have a leading role in feeding the world and increasing the resilience of global food supplies, not standing by watching others take the lead and forge ahead. The UK is the natural home for science research. I want companies and research providers to know that the UK is the best place for them to carry out their research. If there are barriers preventing them from setting up their research and development activities here, this Government will help overcome them.
The Environment Secretary added;
We have a world class science and research base and the expertise to develop the tools needed to address global challenges. We should rightly celebrate and be proud of this. There are opportunities to push ourselves even further. We in Britain have the science, the technology, the know-how to lead the world in this field. We must use our nation’s rich history of science and innovation as a stepping stone to the future. GM crops offer a genuine prospect of high-yielding, low-or-no chemical agricultural production. If we want to reduce the use of chemicals in agriculture, while safeguarding yields and maintaining efficient production, we need to encourage innovation - not deter it.
Mr Paterson acknowledged that there are a variety of views on GM technology.
While I believe that there are significant economic, environmental and international development benefits to GM, I am conscious of the views of those who have concerns and who need reassurance on this matter. I recognise that we – government, industry, the scientific community and others – owe a duty to the British public to reassure them that GM is a safe, proven and beneficial innovation. We must lead this discussion, explaining to the public not only what GM technology is but also how it can help.
He said that there are potential agricultural and environmental benefits to be had from GM technology.
Used properly, GM promises effective ways to protect or increase crop yields. It can also combat the damaging effects of unpredictable weather and disease on crops. It 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. Research undertaken by a team at Rockefeller University has found that over the course of the next 50 years new technology, combined with improved agricultural practices across the world, could release an area 2.5 times the size of France from cultivation.
Thanks to biotechnology, farmers around the world have been able to protect yields, prevent damage from insects and pests and reduce farming’s impact on the environment. There is also evidence which points to GM crops delivering further environmental benefits such as reduced soil erosion and reduced use of fuel and chemicals.
In other parts of the world where GM crops are grown, plants are better protected against pests and insects are better protected against accidentally being sprayed. I recently spoke to a farmer in North Carolina who has been able to do away with all of his spraying equipment as a result of GM technology.
The farmer benefits. The consumer benefits. The environment benefits.
Mr Paterson stressed that safety was an important factor when considering GM.
GM offers real opportunities to develop crops that provide better resilience to extremes of weather and land conditions. There is the potential to add extra nutrients that can directly help people in developing countries who are vulnerable to nutrient deficiencies in their diets. As the world’s population continues to increase access to these technologies becomes even more important.
As with all technologies, public and environmental safety is paramount. The reality is that, in Europe and elsewhere, GM is perhaps the most regulated of all agricultural technologies. There are some who describe GM crops as ‘Frankenfoods’, deliberately termed to imply that they pose a risk to human health and the environment. The science does not support this. Products are subject to extensive testing and development in tightly controlled conditions – progressing from laboratory to glasshouse to field trial stages only when it’s safe to do so.
Mr Paterson added;
With regard to consumer choice, I would like to make clear that no-one, least of all me, is suggesting the wholesale adoption of GM in the UK’s food chain. I believe that people should be free to walk into a supermarket and choose whether to buy local organic potatoes or from the blight-resistant GM variety bred here in the UK. Whatever the product, whatever its origin, people should be confident in the knowledge that it safe to eat and grown sustainably. Our policy should be based on sound science and strong safeguards.
The Environment Secretary explained that it was important to work with other European countries to find a way forward for GM.
While I acknowledge the views of other Member States, I want British researchers and farmers to have access to the latest technologies so that they can reap the economic and environmental benefits. At the moment we are expecting them to respond to the challenges of global food security with one hand tied behind their backs. The current situation is deeply regrettable.
It means that the prospects of crops coming through which offer solutions to UK-specific problems are some years away.
We risk driving scientific and intellectual capital away from Europe for good. This will reduce our ability to develop and deploy crucial tools which could help ensure European agricultural production meets future demands while protecting the environment.
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. 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.
In conclusion Mr Paterson said;
The problems we face in feeding ourselves in 40 years’ time are very real and something we have to prepare for right now. We should all keep one fact at the front of our minds. At this very moment there are one billion people on this planet who are chronically hungry. Are we really going to look them in the eye and say ‘We have the proven technology to help, but the issue’s just too difficult to deal with, it’s just too controversial’? It won’t be long until the population moves from seven billion to nine billion and we’ll have even fewer resources to feed them. It is our duty to explore technologies like GM because they may hold the answers to the very serious challenges ahead.
GM isn’t necessarily about making life easier for farmers or making their businesses more profitable, although I believe that there are great opportunities for the industry.
It’s about finding non-chemical solutions to pests and diseases. It’s about fortifying food with vitamin A so that children in the poorest countries don’t go blind or die. It’s about making crops durable enough to survive sustained drought. It’s about developing new medicines. It’s about feeding families in some of the poorest parts of the world. We cannot expect to feed tomorrow’s population with yesterday’s agriculture. We have to use every tool at our disposal.