Britain's farming and environment minister has called for a speeding up in the European Union's approval process for genetically modified (GM) crops which he said offered definite benefits including less pesticide use.
"I think we need to work with like-minded partners to move the legislation along at a European level because it is going grindingly slowly and we are getting further and further behind," Owen Paterson told reporters on Thursday (3 January) at the Oxford Farming Conference.
There has been strong public opposition to GM crops across much of the European Union, linked partly to concerns about their safety, which has helped to slow the approval process.
"There are definite gains but there is a big battle to be won with the public," Paterson said.
Mairead McGuinness, a member of the European Parliament's agriculture committee, said that lobbying against GM crops had become less intense in the last couple of years but said opposition remained significant.
"The view for some time of many in the European Parliament has been that the public don't want it and therefore we are not going to have it," she told reporters.
Paterson, in an earlier speech to the conference, said GM crops could offer benefits including a potential significant reduction in pesticide and diesel use while he also recognised the need for EU safety checks to reassure the public.
"This is not a frightening new spooky technology, this is something that is well established in very large parts of the world," he told reporters, saying that in 2011, GM crops were grown by 16 million farmers in 29 countries.
Paterson also cited benefits from GM crops such as golden rice which he said could have the potential to stop 400,000 to 500,000 young people going blind.
Golden rice has been genetically modified to help combat Vitamin A deficiency which affects millions of children and pregnant women and can cause irreversible blindness.
In Britain, Friends of the Earth senior food and farming campaigner Clare Oxborrow said:
“GM crops are not the solution to the food challenges we face. They are largely being developed to benefit multinational biotech firms that are gaining control of the seed industry, not to feed poor people in developing countries.
“World food production needs a radical overhaul, but this should be based on less intensive practices that increase agricultural diversity, deliver resilience to the impacts of climate change and benefit local communities.
“We must also switch to more sustainable diets globally, including reducing meat-consumption in wealthy nations and an end to food crops being used for biofuels.”
The European Commission proposed allowing national cultivation bans for GMOs in July 2010, in a bid to break a deadlock in EU GM crop approvals which has seen few varieties approved for cultivation in more than 12 years.
The proposal, however, has been subject to bitter divisions in the Council since then, with recent attempts by the Danish presidency to find a compromise agreement making little headway.
To date, seven EU countries have introduced national "safeguard" bans on growing Monsanto's MON 810 insect-resistant maize: Austria, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary and Luxembourg.
On 2 January 2013, Poland's government announced restrictions on MON 810 and the Amflora potato, produced by German biotech firm BASF.
A year earlier, BASF's Plant Science announced that it was moving its plant biotech research activities from Germany to the United States and would cease all work to develop GM crops for the EU market.
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