Time to step up food production

At the Oxford Farming Conference the Secretary of State for Agriculture, Owen Paterson, raised one issue certain to win a positive reaction, but then raised another which is a lot more controversial. The first was his call for more to be done to curb the import bill for food that can be grown in the UK. His second argument was that if the EU failed to open up a debate on genetically modified (GM) crops, Europe was on course to end up as what he described as an ‘agricultural museum’, paying homage to old technology.

This is proof that the world and governments have moved a long way from the Oxford Farming Conference a few years ago when the then agriculture minister, Margaret Beckett, suggested agriculture no longer had any real political, social or economic significance. Her suggestion then was that food security was irrelevant. It is hard to believe how far wrong those comments have been proved to be by global events she could never have foreseen.

For the agriculture industry, it is encouraging to have the Government calling for greater food production. Farming has always shown its ability to respond positively to the right signals from the market and governments. Horse meat almost a year ago awakened a new interest in a ‘buy British’ policy among supermarkets and a need for shorter, better managed supply chains. Now we have a government minister saying that farmers are well placed to alter the UK trade balance for food, by replacing imports and helping to drive exports.

Mr Paterson’s comments on GM crops might be more controversial, but he is right in suggesting there is a need to open up a wider debate in Europe. This has been given a new twist by the European Commission being due to decide soon whether to approve a GM maize variety, which would be the first since 1998 approved to be grown in Europe. The approach in the past has been to delay decisions, but legal action is effectively forcing the Commission to make a decision this time. This has significant political consequences, and if it can it will probably try to delay this decision again, although this could leave it in breach of a European court ruling.

This could mean the present Commission would repeat the performance of the previous one by going right through its term without any progress on solving the GM issue. This can only be seen as a failure to tackle a major issue, with Brussels led by the views of some powerful Member States and influential pressure groups.

In adopting this approach it has ignored the advice of its own chief scientific adviser, Anne Glover, who said that the GM debate needs to focus on science rather than politics; it is also evidence that Brussels is opting for the easy route, while ignoring the reality that its competitors, and those supplying ingredients for livestock feeds, are now almost all growing GM crops. It might have successfully avoided conflict with some big players, but the Commission’s role is to do the right thing, rather than seeking popularity.

As the present Commission comes to the end of its term in October, now would be a good time to open up a real debate on GM. This would at least allow a new Commission to come in with the debate started. This needs to tease out what science there is behind the arguments against GM crops. The wider public needs to be given the facts too about the pluses and minuses of the environmental impact.

If the Commission believes a majority of consumers are prepared to pay a premium for non-GM crops, it should set out the evidence. Having a robust, open, discussion is not about taking sides for or against GM, it is simply about adding some science and objectivity to a debate that has been high on emotion and short on facts.

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