Public benefits of GM crops must be highlighted ahead of agricultural benefits if British farmers are to gain access to the technology, and the agriculture industry has a major role to play in making the case.

That was the message to delegates at an NFU conference in Peterborough, designed to examine the ‘when, what and how’ of GM crops on British farms.

Delegates heard how GM crops are grown on 181.5 million hectares of land worldwide and used by 18 million farmers, yet in 20 years of the technology only one commercial variety, a GM-maize, has been licensed for use in the European Union.

Scientists at research centres including Rothamsted in Hertfordshire, the Sainsbury Laboratory and the John Innes Centre in Norwich continue to play a leading role in research. However, developments have been held back by a European Union regulatory regime recently described by MPs as ‘dysfunctional’.

Summing up at the end of the half-day conference, NFU Combinable Crops Board chairman Mike Hambly said: “Despite all the benefits we’ve heard about today we have to ask what’s in it for our consumers and we have to get that message across. We need to try and regain some common sense in this debate.”

NFU Deputy President Minette Batters chaired the conference and said: “GM crops are already part of the food supply chain and have the potential to be a big part of British agriculture’s future. The conference was about the NFU helping its members lead an informed debate on the topic. Open discussion in the industry is absolutely vital if British farming is to have access to this technology.

“GM is a powerful plant breeding technology which can help produce better crops – British farmers must have the choice to access the best tools to increase their productivity, resilience, profitability and competitiveness.

“The market, led by sound information, must ultimately decide if GM crops are grown here. The NFU has been urging regulators at an EU and UK level to base their decisions on sound science and evidence and there must be no exception for GM.”

Chairman of AHDB’s cereals and oilseed division, Yorkshire farmer, Paul Temple, said: “We need a broader debate on technology in plant breeding in Europe. We need to add this into a wider debate and ensure it isn’t polarised. There should be no either or debate.”

More than 100 farmers attended the conference, which was chaired by NFU Deputy President Minette Batters and organised by NFU East Anglia, NFU East Midlands and NFU HQ Science and Regulatory Affairs.

Speakers included Professor Jonathan Jones from the Sainsbury Laboratory, who outlined a research project to develop a GM potato that would be blight resistant, nematode resistant and have improved tuber quality.

He said the project faced technological, regulatory and communication challenges and, in a best-case scenario, it would be eight to ten years before the potato was commercially available. The cost of gaining approval alone was estimated at £10 million.

Bob Haselwood, Chairman of the United Soybean Board in the USA, said that 94 per cent of soybeans grown in the USA were biotech soybeans, grown on more than 30 million hectares of land.

“It’s just one of the tools we have in our toolbox. From the farmers’ point of view the amount grown has gone from 2 per cent in 1996 to 94 per cent today so you can see that farmers have really grabbed hold of this technology. We are now working on consumer-friendly traits such as oils with lower transfats,” he said.

He said that the use of GM soybeans had led to increased crop yields of 21 per cent and a reduction in pesticide use of 37 per cent.

“If it didn’t work farmers wouldn’t use it,” he said.

Renaud Wilson, from Defra’s GM team, said GM crops had been grown globally for nearly 20 years and the evidence broadly showed they could deliver economic and environmental benefits. The Government supported science-based regulation to ensure they could be used safely.

He said the Government hoped changes in the way the European Union assesses GM crops, which gives individual countries an opt-out, could make it more likely for GM crops to be approved for cultivation in England.