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East Anglian farmers falling behind in the GM food race, hears Norfolk Farming Conference

PUBLISHED: 09:13 22 February 2013 | UPDATED: 09:13 22 February 2013

The annual Norfolk Farming Conference. Speaker Adam Quinney, National Farmers Union vice president.Picture: Denise Bradley

The annual Norfolk Farming Conference. Speaker Adam Quinney, National Farmers Union vice president.Picture: Denise Bradley


European opposition to GM crops could leave East Anglian farmers lagging behind the rest of the world in the race to maximise food production and feed a burgeoning global population.

That was one of the key messages which emerged from yesterday’s Norfolk Farming Conference, held at the John Innes Centre (JIC) in Colney.

Almost 400 delegates heard how precision farming techniques and the use of genetically-modified (GM) crops – still prevented from being grown in the UK – have rapidly increased yields and profitability in places like the USA and Argentina.

Keynote speaker, Scottish MEP George Lyon, described a “perfect storm” created by a predicted doubling of food demand by 2050, exacerbated by constraints on land and water availability.

He said in the ongoing negotiations over reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the European Commission needed to recognise the importance of precision farming and new technologies like GM in meeting future food demand.

“On the big issue of sustainable intensification, the commission has been silent,” he said. “Their absolute focus is on biodiversity.

“Biotech is the great unmentionable, yet the rest of the world is powering on.

“The politics of fear is winning, hands down. The threat is this perception of ‘Frankenstein food’ and I wonder how we can turn that round and get us on a competitive level playing fields with the rest of the world.”

In response to a question about to how to “neutralise” the anti-GM arguments of the green lobby, Mr Lyon said: “That’s the £64,000 question. Mainstream politicians are nervous about taking it on, because clearly they are worried about the reaction of the general public.

“It is a bit like nuclear power. The green lobby hated the idea of that, but then the idea of climate change came along and that scared them more.

“I think if you look at this new technology then the fundamental argument for it is as robust as it can be. They are going to be in the ludicrous position of saying that we cannot use this stuff for environment reasons, but in fact it is the key to cut down the use of agricultural chemicals and grow more efficient crops.”

Kevin Nolan, who operates Nolan Farming, told the conference he had travelled through the US and South America studying GM crops and meeting large-scale farmers, seed companies and biotech firms.

He described a sophisticated business landscape, with farmers using GPS nutrient mapping and biotechnology, which had helped boost soya bean yields by 1,000pc in the last 60 years.

He said: “We are going backwards in Europe. Our tools are getting blunt, while the farmers in the USA and Argentina are getting sharper tools and it is giving them the edge.

“We must up our game and I feel GM crops can deliver that. Not every farmer will want to grow them but the important thing is that we have the choice.

“The farmers in America are not just making money, they are generating wealth. Their technology is at a totally different level. It is mind-boggling.”

Jim McCarthy, whose company recently sold 31,000 acres of cropping land in Argentina for $83m, explained why the South American country was so competitive.

He said GM crops had helped raise yields by 41pc since 1996, while a subsidy-free policy regime had fostered innovation.

“Agriculture in north west Europe is stagnating,” he said. “As Nero said 2,000 years ago: ‘Our farmers grow fat and complain.’

“You need to wake up, because the rollercoaster is coming at you. GM crops enable us to increase productivity and reduce production costs.”

Adam Quinney, vice president of the National Farmers Union, added: “There is still a general lack of acceptance on this technology across the EU, which continues to present a barrier to progress.”

Mr Quinney said GM engineered, disease-resistant crops could provide a powerful means of increasing agricultural output with modest resources.

But he said UK retailers were hindering progress by “offering false promises and raising unrealistic expectations amongst consumers.”

“The poultry sector provides a case in point here,” he said. “Within the UK, the majority of retailer specifications require poultry to be fed a non-GM diet. Yet, the availability of non-GM soya is reducing rapidly as Brazilian growers forge ahead with the production and development of more GM varieties.

“This leaves poultry farmers in the UK currently paying a premium of around £100 per tonne for non-GM soya, even though the integrity of the product is deteriorating with positive contaminations being found more regularly.

“The reality is that, like it or not, GM is part of the global food supply chain. GM crops have been used in the UK, and around the world, for the last 15 years to feed livestock destined for our supermarket shelves, during which time no ill effects have been reported or robustly reflected in peer reviewed research.

“As it stands, other countries continue to expand their GM acreage and develop new GM crops, and we continue to import GM feed for our livestock. It’s time that the (European) Commission, along with some of the UK’s retailers, took their head out of the sand and allowed British farmers the choice.”

Other speakers included Bill Clark commercial technical director at NIAB (the National Institute of Agricultural Botany) who said “step changes” in technology were needed to get British farmers off the yield plateau where they had lingered for 15 years.

But he said genetically-engineered crops were only part of the solution in a region whose main limitation was the availability of water.

The conference also heard from JIC director Dale Sanders, who outlined progress made in developing oil seed rape which were resistant to premature pod shattering, and advances in wheat breeding to improve yield quality and disease resistance.

Following his presentation, one of the farming delegates told him: “We need to feed our children and our grandchildren and it is guys like you who will do it, and not guys like us who put seeds in the ground.”

The comment was endorsed by a round of applause from the farmers in the hall.

The Norfolk Farming Conference was organised by Anglia Farmers and supported by the EDP.

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  • has the guillotine descended?no more comments on GM permitted? I've posted some... but they did not pass the 'moderator verification test' - returned (spurned!) - rejected, with no explanation apart from Reason: other...: what about reader-generated input? Customer feedback? interactivity on a digital platform, er, platform?

    Report this comment

    martin wallis

    Wednesday, February 27, 2013

  • for those of you (ingo, betty, nrg) interested in further reading on concerns about GM in food and farming, you might like to read these... http:www.soilassociation.orggm Telling porkies: The big fat lie about doubling food production Land of the GM-free GM crops - the health effects Silent invasion - the hidden use of GM crops in livestock feed Seeds of doubt - North American farmers' experiences of GM crops

    Report this comment

    martin wallis

    Wednesday, February 27, 2013

  • Yet more scaremongering by vested interests. Globally, over a third of the food we grow is wasted either at the source of consumption (ie we buy more than we can use), discarded during processing because its the wrong shapesizecolour or rots between being harvested and point of sale because farmers don't have the right storage facilities. Sort those out and all of a sudden there is plenty of food to go around. However its not going to benefit the big agri companies because they're relying on being able to sell expensive GM crop varieties to farmers. So lets not kid ourselves here. Farmers and agri companies aren't supporting GM through altruism. In fact they haven't changed since Nero's time and are still growing fat and complaining.

    Report this comment

    Betty Swallocks

    Friday, February 22, 2013

  • Jim McCarthy, whose company recently sold 31,000 acres of cropping land in Argentina for $83m, explained why the South American country was so competitive. blah,blah....I like this little splattering "According to Vicente, Argentina’s massive soy harvest in turn requires an annual dowsing of 50 million gallons of Roundup, an herbicide manufactured by Monsanto, which has provided many of the GM soy seeds to Argentine farmers". Roundup is good for you!!! google In Latin America, a growing backlash against genetically modified food

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    Friday, February 22, 2013

  • The great GM food race is littered with the dead bodies of Indian farmers who committed suicide after signing contracts with GM firms. Farmers who had windblown GM contaminate their crops have been sued by seed companies and most importantly, this highly subsidised research has no markets whatsoever, people have rejected these patent foods for decades now, still the moment there is talk of money being spent they are there like vultures out for more. Allowing EU farmers the 'choice' to contaminate their organic neighbours crops, without being compensated, will not be passed by the EU. Mr. quinney's ought to realise that if he wants to sell to the EU, the GM contamination he proposes, will not be acceptable. We should take heed from China's excellent organic results and step away from manipulating foods for the sake of market control and greed. Farmers in developing countries rely on the seeds they save for next year, any other regime is not acceptable to them.

    Report this comment

    ingo wagenknecht

    Friday, February 22, 2013

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