Last week's Oxford Farming Conference focused on the future of agriculture including that of controversial genetically modified crops. Philip Bowern reports
Politicians are not, as a breed, terribly straightforward. Ask a straight question and you will often get an answer as curved as a European Union-reject cucumber. Circumventing the point is a speciality.
Yet Secretary of State for the Environment, Owen Paterson, could not have been clearer when addressing the issue of genetically modified crops at a press conference at last week's Oxford Farming Conference, the annual gathering of the farming establishment.
When asked if it was right to take "chances" with our food, with genetic modification, on the basis of what the questioner called "an experiment", the minister almost exploded. "When does an experiment cease to be an experiment?" he asked. And referring to the widespread adoption of GM farming technology in the United States and other parts of the world, he listed the extent to which it is now part of food production.
"Seventeen million farms, 170 million hectares, 12 per cent of the world's arable land covered in GM crops... that has gone beyond experimentation; that is delivering safe, palatable food to millions of people," Mr Paterson insisted.
Yet across the European Union GM has yet to be adopted as officially 'safe'. A vote in the European Parliament later this month is due to consider whether a licence can be granted for the growing of an insect-resistant variety of maize. But consumer skepticism remains strong.
In his keynote address to the conference, Mr Paterson set out his frustrations with the way the UK and Europe have consistently resisted the introduction of GM technology.
He told delegates: "Well-regulated GM technology presents some of the biggest and most exciting opportunities for agriculture.
"The European Academies Science Advisory Council's recent report highlighted the 'compelling evidence that GM crops can contribute to sustainable development goals with benefits to farmers, consumers, the environment and the economy'.
"Later this month we are expecting an EU vote on the licensing of a GM insect-resistant maize for commercial cultivation. This is not a crop of practical interest for UK farmers. But if approval is granted, as it should be based on the scientific evidence, then it will be the first GM food crop authorised for planting by the EU for 15 years.
"Whether or not this vote heralds a breakthrough in the EU's regulation of GM crops remains to be seen. Delays and blockages have been politically-motivated rather than based on evidence.
"I will continue to make the case for a regime that allows fair market access for products once they have passed Europe's rigorous, independent scientific assessment.
"There are other tools in the toolbox, GM is not a panacea. But the longer that Europe continues to close its doors to GM, the greater the risk that the rest of the world will bypass us altogether. Europe risks becoming the Museum of World Farming as innovative companies make decisions to invest and develop new technologies in other markets."
Evidence of the way its failure to adopt GM technology is holding back European farming came from National Farmers' Union president Peter Kendall too. He revealed that in discussions with major food producers in the United States, Europe's resistance to accepting GM foods was damaging trade. "I think Europe is becoming a bit of a backwater. The US and Canada say to us 'we can go and trade with Asia and the other exciting growth markets'. It is really important that we do not undermine our ability to trade and allow our market to be distorted. The view of the NFU is that we welcome trade."
That view has been consistent, as has the NFU's support for GM crops. Last year the farming organisation set out its backing in a response to Mr Paterson calling for a clear framework to be put in place "sooner rather than later", to enable farmers to use GM technology, one which embraces research and development, regulation and commercialisation.
Mr Kendall said at the time: "I applaud Owen Paterson for the leadership he is showing on this issue. The NFU agrees that the UK, which is the natural home for science research, should be at the forefront of providing agricultural solutions, not watching from the sidelines."