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.

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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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