Last updated: June 20, 2013 8:57 am

UK government makes strongest statement yet in favour of GM food

A police officer talks to an anti-GM protester in a field of maize.©Rex Features

Britain should embrace the benefits of genetically modified crops and push other EU countries to drop their opposition to GM food, the environment secretary will say in a speech later on Thursday.

In the strongest government statement yet in favour of GM, Owen Paterson will step up British efforts to convert the rest of Europe to the merits of the controversial technology, spelling out its benefits for farmers, consumers and the environment.

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Mr Paterson said on Thursday morning that he wanted to ensure the UK led the world in the next generation of GM crops, which he said were a “wonderful opportunity” to improve human health.

The environment secretary said attempts to thwart the expansion of the crops had resulted in 17m people going blind or dying because of lack of access to genetically modified “golden rice”.

“Those are real young people. Young people who will wake up this morning being able to see and go to bed blind. And some of them will die today,” he told the BBC’s Today programme on Thursday morning.

In his speech, Mr Paterson will say that genetic modification can protect or increase crop yields, reduce the impact of unpredictable weather and disease, and enable farmers to use fewer fertilisers and other chemicals.

According to Mr Paterson, the government should not be afraid of making the case to the public about the benefits of GM, not only for the food chain but also elsewhere. He will also criticise the EU “bureaucracy” for persistently blocking development of GM crops.

Genetic modification is seen by some as vital for dealing with steep world population growth, predicted to be 9bn by 2050. But there is still widespread hostility from some environmentalists towards “Frankenstein foods”.

Mr Paterson will say he is conscious of the views of critics who need “reassurance” on the matter. “I recognise that we – government, industry, the scientific community and others – owe a duty to the British public to reassure them that GM is a safe, proven and beneficial innovation.” But, he says, GM could lead to land being cultivated more efficiently.

His comments echo a recent intervention by David Willetts, science minister, who said that the EU should relax GM restrictions to avoid “becoming a museum of the 20th century”.

The UK faces tough resistance from several EU countries including France and Austria. Brussels has so far approved only two GM products grown in the EU for human consumption, in contrast to the US and many other parts of the world.

The Tory minister has the support of his Liberal Democrat coalition partners for his shift towards a stronger pro GM stance – subject to some concerns about labelling and cross-contamination.

Leading plant scientists gave his comments an enthusiastic welcome. Maurice Moloney, chief executive of Rothamsted Research, where the government recently approved an extended field trial of GM wheat, said: “We are very happy to see clear leadership on this issue from Mr Paterson.”

“The government’s initiative puts the UK back into a leadership position in Europe . . . and will promote a rational approach to the adoption of technologies that our farmers want and need in order to maintain their competitive position in world agriculture,” Prof Moloney said.

GM is a significant element of the current EU-US free trade talks, with US politicians wanting liberalisation as part of the deal – in the face of hostility from the European Commission.

In 2010, the commission proposed giving back control over GM crop approval to member states.

This was abandoned last year, after opposition from countries including Germany and France, but GM supporters hope Germany will change its position if Angela Merkel wins the federal election scheduled for September.

The environmental group Friends of the Earth said: “Ministers must urgently get behind a different approach to food and farming that delivers real sustainable solutions rather than peddling the snake oil that is GM.”

Additional reporting by Hannah Kuchler

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