There is overwhelming scientific evidence that improving crops by molecular biotechnology techniques is safe. It is an established and successful technology used widely across the world. 2015 was the 20th year of commercialisation of biotech crops and they were planted by 18 million farmers on 179.7 million hectares worldwide, yet only one commercial variety is currently licensed in Europe. Three US National Academies have concluded in a major review that GM crops pose no risk to human health; they declared an urgent need for publicly funded methods of testing GM products as they are developed. 121 Nobel laureates signed a letter in June this year supporting Precision Agriculture and GMOs.
When I was at DEFRA, I was called by a successful Shropshire farmer, telling me he was about to spray his potatoes for the 15th time. Although legal, he knew that this could not be good for the environment. He then asked “When is the UK going to be allowed to use GM?”
Following a speech I gave at Rothamsted in 2013, I worked with allies in the European Union to change the regime which on many occasions saw products cleared by rigorous scientific analysis only to be blocked by political decisions. Meanwhile, the rest of the world has been forging ahead.
At the Oxford Farming Conference in January, I noted that US maize yields have overtaken those of France in the last 20 years. France is missing out on 0.9 tons per hectare of maize yield across their whole production area of 1.5 million hectares. That’s a missed yield of 1.4 million tons of maize that could be worth £150m to French agriculture. If France had kept pace with modern technologies - like better seed breeding, the rapid adoption of data driven support tools or the use of GM-technology – yields would be similar to those in the USA. Alternatively, France could be growing the same total maize harvest on 150,000 less hectares; land that could be used for wildlife, recreation, or forestry.
At last, as we move towards Brexit, the UK will be in a position to embrace technology which increases farm productivity and delivers significant environmental benefits, including the reduced use of pesticides, diesel and compaction of soil by machinery.
This month, Rothamsted Research have applied for permission to begin GM wheat trials which could boost yields by up to 40 per cent. I hope that this will be the start of numerous similar projects so that UK agriculture will not just become increasingly productive from biotechnology, but the UK can become the world centre for agricultural research in temperate climates. This research has the potential to become a major generator of wealth and employment for our economy. The Agriculture Minister, George Eustice, has confirmed that the Government is looking at possible future arrangements for GM crop regulations in light of Brexit.
It is time for a resurgent UK, independent of Europe’s hostility to modern technology, to support biotechnology and the latest agricultural science.