UK 'needs serious debate' on GM crops
Genetically modified crops will help solve the world food shortage, a top farming academic told an industry meeting in Devon.
Professor Michael Winter, director of the Centre for Rural Policy Research at Exeter University, said a serious debate was needed at national level to decide on the future of GM crops.
Speaking to an audience of 100 farmers and agricultural professionals at Bicton College, Prof Winter said: "I am absolutely convinced we have to go down the GM route – but we must not be led by the plant breeders Monsanto and Syngenta. To face the challenges ahead we have to use everything available in the tool-box, and that means not ruling out GM, but ruling it entirely in. We need to be researching new kinds of crops."
Prof Winter gave the keynote speech at the Next Generation conference at Bicton, held to examine ways of reducing fossil-fuel use on the farm. He said a single gallon of petrol contained the energy equivalent of three weeks of human labour at 40 hours per week – and 1,000 hours of human labour could achieve what a tractor could do in ten hours. So the benefits of using fossil fuels had been obvious. But current input costs were far too high, and the culture was unsustainable, he said. Energy cost £160 per hectare of arable farming and £130 per hectare for dairying – and even organic farming was not much less.
Prof Winter pointed out that 80% of the world's food came from just 12 plant types, when, over the years, 30,000 different plants had been used for human food. So research was urgently needed, "and that means using brain power", he said.
Farmers, scientists and economists had to pull together in efforts to solve the challenges.
The conference heard of the new link between Bicton College and the Dartington Hall Trust at Totnes, and the research, aimed at lasting 40 years, at Dartington's Parsonage Farm.
"I hope we have the talent to create and innovate, explore and experiment to find new ways to produce food," said Bicton's principal, David Henley.
He spoke about how farm mechanisation, artificial fertilisers and chemical pesticides had transformed agriculture, but warned it was not sustainable.
He said: "For change to happen, we need to build a vision of the future – and maybe fossil fuel-free farming is part of that. We are not looking at a return to peasant farming; rather what we do needs to be based on sound science."