Euro MP and Norfolk farmer backs Britain’s plant scientists
15:05 21 March 2014
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Former Norfolk farmers’ leader and Euro MP Stuart Agnew praised the country’s plant scientists for finding new solutions to overcome challenges facing the agricultural industry.
Speaking at the annual dinner of Stoke Ferry Agricultural Society, he told 130 members and guests: “We’ve got here in Britain scientists who are finding British solutions to British problems in agriculture.”
As a farmer, who was one of a handful to grow a trial GM oilseed rape crop more than a decade ago, he said: “We really should be supporting them and not decrying their work.”
He had been “disgusted by the treatment” of William Brigham – the Mid-Norfolk arable and dairy farmer, who had grown a field-scale trial of GM maize in 1999, which had been trashed. Several years later, Mr Agnew had agreed to host a trial. “I felt it my duty as much as anything much else to volunteer when I got the opportunity,” he added.
As GM technology had been adopted in more than 30 countries around the world, it had the potential to benefit cropping in eastern England. “Actually the technology is extremely good and wild beet will be history if we’re allowed to use this technology; it simply wipes them out,” he added.
There could be benefits for growers on the lightest Brecks soils, facing the ever-present risk of serious loss and damage to newly-emerging crops from wind erosion. “In terms of preventing damage from so-called “fen blows” - you’d be far less likely to get a “blow” if we can use this technology,” said Mr Agnew, who is a former chairman of Norfolk National Farmers’ Union. “There is nothing wrong with the technology at all, in my opinion, anyway, but the green lobby in the European Union think quite differently,” he added.
On his farm near Fakenham last August, where he has about 35,000 free-range laying hens, he had considering killing the entire flocks when the cost of non-GM soya reached £680 tonne. Fortunately, it was agreed by the leading supermarkets that GM feed could be used. “It hasn’t made any difference at all to the demand, none whatsoever,” he added.
A visit to the John Innes Centre on Norwich Research Park, where scientists at the Sainsbury Laboratory had completed trials on GM potatoes had been instructive. “They have found a potato plant in south America; it looks and tastes like a marble but it is resistant to blight,” he said.
There have been two bad late-blight years in seven years and some growers had to spray 19 times to contain blight, said Mr Agnew, who said that one million people had starved to death in the Irish Potato Famine.
He also said that work at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire has repelled aphids from wheat crops by inserting natural peppermint. “They found the gene which repels the aphids and put it into wheat – and it works. The aphids don’t settle on the wheat. This is a huge step forward and is a really good idea. We won’t have to keep spraying crops,” he added.
In reply to Mr Agnew’s toast to agriculture and the society, John Hall, vice-chairman, spoke about the industry’s big challenges to produce even more food in coming decades.
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