'I can only see the benefits - and the benefits are enormous'

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The Independent Online

Bob Fiddaman was not the least bit apologetic."The trouble is, it's a complex issue," he said, "but not everyone wants to examine it closely enough."

Yesterday Mr Fiddaman was revealed as one of 30 farmers taking part in the latest round of the government- sponsored trials of genetically modified foods. Given the ongoing controversy towards GM and the difficulties experienced at the sites of previous trials, one might have expected Mr Fiddaman to have been a little more cautious with his comments. Not a bit of it.

"I am sorry but these trials are too important," he said, as he pointed out the part of his 500-acre Hertfordshire farm that will be used to test the effects on wildlife such as butterflies and wildlflowers of new weedkillers, for which a special variety of oil seed rape has been engineered. "English Nature has said they want to see the evidence so we need to provide the evidence. That is what I am doing."

Mr Fiddaman, who is in his mid-50s, will be compensated to the tune of around £2,000 for turning over part of his land for the trial, but there seemed little suggestion he was doing it for the money. As a member of the National Farmers Union biotechnology working group, he is utterly convinced that GM crops are the future for British farming.

A farmer for 32 years, he is well aware that the stance he and others who have agreed to take part in the crop trials are taking is controversial. Greenpeace, the environmental action group, is still facing court action after its members were among campaigners who destroyed trials of GM maize at Lyng in Norfolk last summer. Mr Fiddaman readily expects his gently sloping land, close to the village of Picotts End, near Hemel Hempsted, to face similar demonstrations.

But he is not perturbed. For every objection the protesters can throw at him he has an answer. While there have been claims that GM crops could cross-pollinate non-GM varieties, Mr Fiddaman insists that the 50-yard gap that separates the trial crops from others is a "99.9 per cent" guarantee against it.

Likewise, while there have been concerns that some of the GM crops being grown could be harmful to humans, he says the variety he is planting - a hybrid containing the Ms8/Rf3 "transformation event" - has been shown to be entirely safe.

Finally, Mr Fiddaman insists that campaigners who have promoted the alternatives to GM foods do not have the facts on their side. "I am sorry but people are living in cloud cuckoo land if they think organic farming is going to feed the world. It's just not going to happen."

Neither he or his wife, Jenny, have made any efforts to hide their activity from their neighbours. Everyone in the village knows that Mr Fiddaman is the "farmer involved in the crop trials".

"My neighbours are happy with what I am doing. Some have even said they wish they had the courage to take part in the trials themselves. There have been some people who have complained to me - mainly from Berkhamsted and Hemel Hempsted. I listen to them, I hear what they have to say but I think their arguments are unbalanced. They often lack the facts."

The trial of spring oil seed rape, which Mr Fiddaman intends to sow within the next couple of weeks, is not the first time he has been involved in tests of GM food. Last winter, on a piece of land close to the current test site, he conducted trials of the winter variety of rape. It is partly his experience from this that has convinced him of the opportunities he thinks are afforded by GM crops - higher yields made available by the crops' greater resistance to herbicides. "From what I saw from the tests I believe this gives us a chance," said Mr Fiddaman, who normally grows cereals and pulses. "I have been getting rid of weeks on plants for 25 years. We are all aware of the effect of weeds on our crops. I seriously believe the herbicide gives us an opportunity."

Mr Fiddaman did not have all day to chat - a working farmer, he was expecting a delivery and needed to get back to his farm. But he believes that GM crops can provide him and others like him a more profitable way of life. "At the moment I can only see the benefits," he said. "The benefits I can see are enormous."