Paul Rylott: British consumers should have the option of buying cheaper, more convenient food

Click to follow
The Independent Online

British consumers today demand affordable, safe, high-quality food produced in a way that is more eco-friendly than some current farming practices.

Genetically modified (GM) crops offer one solution. Currently farmers and consumers are denied the GM option. People in Britain should be free to choose GM, just as they are in other countries.

GM crops are now grown in 16 different countries. Six million farmers are growing them, four million are in resource-poor countries such as China, India and South Africa. GM crops are grown each year on approximately 60 million ha, an area over twice the size of the UK.

The recent economic review by the Prime Minister's strategy unit concluded that GM crops would offer UK farmers "cost and convenience advantages", which the industry estimates to be in excess of £50m for the four crops that in the farm-scale evaluations (FSE).

The UK science review stated that the risk from current GM foods was no greater than other forms of agriculture. This should not have been a surprise - it is a view shared by the World Health Organisation, regulators around the world and the Royal Society.

The Agricultural Biotechnology Council looks forward to the results of the FSEs and expect them to replicate environmental benefits already observed elsewhere. The 280-plus sites cultivated as part of the FSEs have clearly shown that co-existence of GM and organic agriculture is feasible.

GM technology already offers substantial advantages to British farmers and consumers. Further technological benefits will come. Future GM crop possibilities include virus, pest and disease resistance and the ability to reduce allergenicity and improve the nutritional content.

Current GM crops also allow farmers to improve the environment they live and work in through the more targeted use of inputs such as pesticides and herbicides. They no longer have to cultivate the soil as much, which means that they improve soil structure, reduce soil erosion and save fuel.

In Britain, independent studies have shown that in oilseed rape, fuel savings could be 16 million litres, which means a saving in greenhouse gas emissions of 57,000 tons. The estimated yield and productivity savings of GM crops could help a potential biofuels industry in the UK to the tune of £85m.

Recent research at Brooms Barn, Rothamsted, has shown that innovative weed control methods, only possible with GM technology, can tailor the weeds within the crop so that they provide specific skylark or stone curlew-friendly habitats.

Genetic modification is already benefiting society in the medical and pharmaceutical arena. The time has come for case-by-case responsible introduction of this technology within UK agriculture.

Paul Rylott is the chairman of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council