Paterson and Walpot in race to get GM crops approved

Owen Paterson, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has backed proposals at the EU Environment Council meeting in March to fast-track the commercial cultivation of GM crops, which could see GM crops being grown in the UK as early as 2015.

Paterson, an ardent supporter of GM technology, was reacting to a compromise package discussed during the meeting, which would allow member states to decide whether to grow GM crops on an individual basis once the specific crop variety was deemed safe by EU authorities. This compromise would still, however, require anti-GM member states to opt out.

Last year, Paterson dismissed criticisms that GM could pose problems to human health, saying: “The use of more precise technology and the greater regulatory scrutiny probably make GMOs even safer than conventional plants and food.”

Meanwhile, a letter to David Cameron, Sir Mark Walpot, the government’s chief scientist and co-chair of the Council for Science and Technology (CST), urged him to approve GM crops, saying that limited agricultural land, climate disruption and population growth have led to the need to get more from the land, and that “science, engineering and technology can help solve these challenges”.

He also refused to acknowledge the potential harm GM crops may have: “After over 15 years of cultivation, there is no compelling evidence of any greater risk to humans, animals or the environment than that associated with conventional crops,” he wrote.

He continued: “We know from the example of soya that when deployed successfully, GM crops can lead to the exclusion of their non-GM counterparts from the global market. The longer the EU continues to oppose GM whilst the rest of the world adopts it, the greater the risk that EU agriculture will become uncompetitive, especially as more GM crops and traits are commercialised successfully elsewhere. The UK should continue to call loudly for science- and evidence-based decision making on this issue.”

In a joint letter to Cameron, environmental groups Greenpeace, the Soil Association, Friends of the Earth, GeneWatch UK and GM Freeze, reacted to the UK government’s pro-GM stance: “We are concerned this position could lead to commercial planting of Monsanto’s RoundUp Ready GM maize NK603 or Syngenta’s GM maize GA21 in England as early as spring 2015.”

Dr Helen Wallace, Director of GeneWatch UK, added: “Monsanto and other GM companies are desperate to push their GM crops into other countries before the devastating impacts on wildlife and farming destroy existing markets. The Government should not be caving in to commercial lobbying and putting British birds and butterflies at risk.

“British consumers don’t want to eat GM food, and both Scottish and Welsh governments have made it clear they are opposed to GM crops,” said Liz O’Neill, director of GM Freeze, “So why are our representatives in Westminster doing their level best to hand over control of our food and our natural environment to big business?”

Commenting on the letter sent by the green groups, Peter Melchett, Soil Association policy director, said: “The Soil Association hopes that David Cameron does not want to be remembered as the Prime Minister responsible for the beginning of the end of organic farming in England. If GM crops spread, GM contamination will make organic farming impossible, and our growing organic market will have to be supplied with imported food.