This is a chance to make British farming globally competitive
There is little point in leaving the European Union if we do not take the opportunity to escape some of its worst prohibitions. Top of the list is its opposition to genetically modified crops, as the farming minister George Eustice hinted to parliament yesterday.
Worldwide, biotech crops are grown on almost 500 million acres, providing billions of meals. They have increased yield while reducing the use of fuel and chemicals. They have improved biodiversity and soil conservation. Nobody’s health has been harmed. Every science academy and every science organisation in Europe has endorsed their safety.
Yet they are effectively prohibited in the EU — not by law but by a regulatory and licensing system of absurd complexity put in place to appease brainwashed public opinion in France, Germany and other countries. This has deterred companies from even trying to license a GM crop in Europe.
Public opinion in Britain has shifted markedly in favour. But if we grow GM crops, will we be able to export them to Europe? Yes: Europe is a huge importer of American GM soya and maize for animal feed.
What’s more, scientists are about to leapfrog into a newer technology that not even the most extreme green could object to: gene editing. Genetic modification usually means transferring segments of DNA between species. Gene editing simply rewrites a section of DNA in place, and is a precise version of the plant breeding we have practised safely for centuries. The US Food and Drug Administration recently declined to regulate two gene-edited mushroom and maize varieties in a tacit admission that they are “conventional” crops with no special risk.
So it no longer makes sense to single out GM crops as a special category. What counts is the trait that has been bred into the plant rather than the method of breeding: insect-resistant, herbicide-tolerant, and so on. After all, a popular “organic” variety of barley, Golden Promise, was actually created by mutation under gamma rays but doesn’t count as “genetically modified”. Britain can now seize the chance to emulate Canada and draft sensible trait-based, rather than method-based, regulations future-proofed against further advances in science.
This is a chance to make British farming globally competitive and boost our science base. Britain has growing conditions for wheat that other countries would kill for, as well as world-leading research on precision farming. We were once the leader in plant biotechnology at centres such as Rothamsted in Hertfordshire. We could be again.