The GM debate stops being about GM

I got pulled up for suggesting that Richard Lochhead, the long-serving Scottish environment minister might be the sort of person we could do with operating at a UK level in agriculture. The puller-up suggested I shouldn’t be encouraging the views of someone who’s taken a firm stance against genetically modified crops. I just think Mr Lochhead’s living in the real world. A lot of people aren’t.

Environment secretary Liz Truss’s pronouncements on science at the NFU conference were a reminder of what GM has become. It’s shorthand for the view that if only it weren’t for the awful regulators of Brussels, then the floodgates would open and Britain would be ready to feed the nine billion hungry mouths of 2050 that everyone keeps on about. Grateful supermarkets would fill their shelves with genetically modified foods and grateful shoppers would buy them.

British politicians, like the Science and Technology committee, which recently issued a report attacking EU regulation on GM crops, need to stop hectoring from the sidelines and start getting agreement. The people of Europe, and that includes the people of Britain, are highly sceptical about biotechnology and they take a secure food supply for granted. It’s a frustrating fact of life for agriculture. They’re always going to insist on all sorts of controls on what can and can’t be used in farming and the controls they insist on aren’t always going to be logical. We’re stuck with that and farming and science have to make their case, a case weakened by years of mistrust and misinformation.

If there’s one industry in this country that is really integrated into Europe it’s agriculture, something brought home to me by Martin Tate of Lincolnshire Field Products, who explained in his interview for this week’s Farm Business (6th March issue) how the near Continent is starting to play an important role as a market for UK fruit and veg. We need to take part properly and stop pretending that there’s some wonderful alternative in which we can exempt ourselves from the rules.

Our Government keeps failing in getting its point across at EU level. It still hectors our partners in a way that didn’t really work in the days of empire and certainly won’t work now. There’s no point in Liz Truss complaining to the NFU that the awful Europeans don’t agree with her on GM, or the Science and Technology committee issuing its lofty criticism. We need leaders who can negotiate, and on GM and on a lot of other things, we haven’t got them.

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