Influential farming debates in Norfolk – allied to the world-class expertise at the county’s research institutes – are helping set the agenda for an emerging national strategy aiming to spark a new “agricultural revolution”.

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Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman, a life sciences advisor to the government, is co-ordinating a new agri-tech strategy which he hopes will put the UK at the forefront of farming innovation – with Norfolk farmers and scientists at the vanguard of that effort.

He is calling for greater investment in food research and technology, including genetically-modified (GM) crops, to unlock growth opportunities for the farming industry, allowing it to compete with food-growing powerhouses on other continents.

Mr Freeman said his proposals had been influenced by debates at last year’s Norfolk Farming Conference, where he made an outspoken speech on the controversial subject of GM foods.

Then, he had told delegates it would be “criminally irresponsible” not to explore the potential of genetically-modified crops to feed a burgeoning world population expected to reach nine billion by 2050 with food demand predicted to rise by 70pc.

This year’s EDP-backed conference, held at the John Innes Centre in Colney on Thursday, further underlinedindustry support for GM crops, with global agriculture experts describing how East Anglian farmers were being left behind in the global race to produce more food.

Countries like the USA and Argentina have seen massive increases in productivity by using crops engineered for optimum yield and diseases resistance –– which EU regulations still prevent from being grown commercially in Britain.

Although Mr Freeman said he could not release full details of the strategy before its formal publication in spring, he is pushing for the government to recognise the importance of GM technologies being pioneered in places like the Norwich Research Park (NRP).

He also hopes to “send a clear message” of government support for agricultural sciences as a tool for unlocking growth in the UK’s food industries and research bases – and he said the debates at the Norfolk Farming Conference had played an important role in setting the national agenda.

“As a Norfolk MP representing the county which gave this country the agricultural revolution, our world-class food and farming industry, and the world-class research base at the NRP, puts us in a very strong position to help tackle the challenge of sustainable food production, both here and around the world,” said Mr Freeman.

“Since the government in the 1980s scaled back public support for agricultural research, for understandable reasons in the face of European food mountains, the world has changed. We have to increase world food production by 70pc in the next 30 years, using almost half as much water, energy and land.

“The aim is to set out a long-term vision for how we attract investment to the UK agricultural research institutes, to better integrate our research base with the UK food and farming sectors and better promote UK innovation around the world through our aid and trade budgets.

“The overall aim is to send a very clear message that the government sees UK food and farming and agricultural sciences in in-field environments as crucial to unlocking sustainable growth in the decades ahead. For too long, successive governments have treated farmers as countryside managers first, and food producers second.

“This strategy is about demonstrating UK leadership in environmentally-sustainable and high-productivity farming, and the wide range of tools and technologies, both low and high tech, that can make that possible.

“The UEA and Norfolk’s farming science leaders have contributed to leading this debate and the Norfolk Farming Conference this year has once again highlighted that leadership.”

Mr Freeman, who is also chairman of an all-party parliamentary group on science and technology in agriculture, said his vision was for a “bold long term” strategy which would unlock investment opportunities for research bases like the NRP, integrate the scientific and farming industries, and forge long-term UK collaborations with countries like India.

He said it could also provide an opportunity to address the perceptions around the GM issue.

“It is very striking that the only crop in the UK which has seen significant yield increases in recent decades is sugar beet and the aim of the strategy is to help British farmers grow increasing yields across other crops,” he said. “Genetics will play an important part in this, as it is doing for our competitors around the world. We need to unpack the initials ‘GM’ and set out the growing range of genetic tools at our disposal.

“There is clearly a major issue with regulation, but there is no scientific evidence anywhere in the world that eating food from GM crops represents any risk to human health. The issues are around biodiversity and appropriate mechanisms to ensure that organic, conventional and GM crops are able to be grown without any fear of interference.

“The other issues with regulation is that the EU is adopting an increasingly hostile approach to agricultural technologies and ministers are actively exploring this as part of the discussions about repatriation of powers.”

At last week’s Norfolk Farming Conference, NFU vice president Adam Quinney led the calls for the EU to “take their head out of the sand” on the issue of GM crops.

The conference heard from JIC director Dale Sanders, who outlined breakthroughs being made by Norwich scientists in developing oil seed rape which was resistant to premature pod shattering, and advances in wheat breeding to improve yield quality and disease resistance.

Following his presentation, one of the farming delegates told him: “We need to feed our children and our grandchildren and it is guys like you who will do it, and not guys like us who put seeds in the ground.”

The comment was endorsed by a supportive round of applause from farmers in the hall.

11 comments

  • GM crops? Good luck with that one Georgie Boy. Whose going to line whose pocket with that one? And what's all this gobbledegook about agriitech. There is nothing magitech about farming. Balanced husbandry, stop the dairy farms from being bullied out of business, and stop the EU telling us all what we can and cant do. If you dont support your local farmers all the magiagritech rubbish will count for absolutely nothing because there wont be any farms and the councils will have thrown up lots of nasty little boxes on the old fields for people to exist in where they can eat their processed horseburgers and drink their milk from great tankers that come from Eastern Europe.

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    Electra

    Monday, February 25, 2013

  • We were going full steam ahead in this region and in other UK institutions ready to lead the world in research until the weasel cowardly Labour government caved into the hysteria of crystal hugging astrology gazing non scientists who set about ripping up trials and making a fuss about nothing because they feared a USA company might be at the back of the cupboard somewhere. Pretty much like the campaign against the incinerator. So China and the rest of the world galloped ahead, the rest of the world makes advantage of GM crops and UK scientists lost their jobs and farmers a lost a level playing field. I look forward when I eat my next lamb chop and watercress salad to growing green wool and to the crop of EDP comments based on anti GM misinformation.

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    Daisy Roots

    Monday, February 25, 2013

  • Ironically Daisy, China has one of the fastest growing organic movements in the world due to the number of horrendous food scares that the country has suffered. As Ingo points out, GM serves to feather the nests of bio-tech companies. Feeding the world and other altruistic aims do not feature in their agenda at all.

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    Betty Swallocks

    Monday, February 25, 2013

  • "Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman, a life sciences advisor to the government,..." And his qualifications are ?. "“The UEA and Norfolk’s farming science leaders have contributed to leading this debate......." I was wondering when the UEA would be sticking it's nose in, using it's unqualified "researchers".

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    "V"

    Monday, February 25, 2013

  • This is just part of a 'charm offensive' (with the emphasis on the offensive...). First we had wall-to-wall coverage in the EDP of a speech by the UK Global Food Security Champion Professor Tim Benton, littered with factual inaccuracies and nakedly biased toward GM: now we have the follow-up by GF - who in his previous incarnation before he became MY MP was a consultant in life-sciences...Director of Early Stage Ventures at Merlin Biosciences. Vested interest? What vested interest? The GM is out of the bottle, alas. We scoff GM every day, and don't know it! That's 'consumer choice' 21st century style, coming to you courtesy of global agribusiness. Food labelling? Not b****y likely! The food industry resembles the credit ratings agencies - don't tell the mug (the buyer) what's actually in the product. Fails the Ronseal deal spectacularly. What's new? Same old Tories...

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    martin wallis

    Tuesday, February 26, 2013

  • The Lobbyist agenda are running toads like Freeman and that other EU mp twit, once they've open the doors and pathed a way for GM foods, they will be off to land nice little directer post with their Lobbyist mates....google Agent Orange chemical in GM war on resistant weeds BBC news

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    nrg

    Monday, February 25, 2013

  • For over a decade have taxpayers supported a fickle research industry that is funded to patent foods for market shares alone, not for nutrition or need. George Freemann MP is wrong to pledge throwing good money after bad and he should refrain from egging on UEA to spend money training students in this, a wholly questionable pretence at science which enslaves farmers, corners markets in vital seeds and chemicals that come with it, here and in the developed world. Like with the forced, unchecked NHS privatisation done without a mandate, this Tory support for unsustainable practises that are not green has to stop. There is more research to be done conventionally and there is more to research than GM alone.

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    ingo wagenknecht

    Monday, February 25, 2013

  • Another article to publicise GF? I suppose its preferable to the nauseating spectacle of him and others trying to "cash in" on the recent A47 fatality. So he's promoting GM - who is lobbying him this time?

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    Mr Cameron Isaliar

    Monday, February 25, 2013

  • There was no cashing in on the recent fatality on the A47 It was a fully justified comment that the wretched road needs improving. The day after the wholly unnecessary accident a speed van sat on a former A class road, now bypassed, which once had a 40 mph limit and now has a 30mph. There are few accidents caused by speeding there-the van was superfluous and only there because of a wittering parish council. The money spent on it would have been better spent towards average speed cameras on the Dereham bypass and surveillance cameras at the Draytonhall Lane end of the dual carriage way and the junction. And on investigating why Fakenham bound traffic was taken out of the town of Dereham and the destination signed off a dangerous junction onto a small road with no slip road .Why did NCC not lobby the Highways Agency for a roundabout at that point? Why are Graham Plant and the police not looking after ourr interests and speaking up? The A10 from Downham to Ely has roundabouts at all difficult junctions Another question is why the police and the EDP have not repeated public calls for information about the black Peugeot involved in the accident when it seems pretty clear it was the cause.We seem to have cameras on blue posts dotted about but nothing to help on roads where we are vulnerable to the driving of idiots.

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    Daisy Roots

    Monday, February 25, 2013

  • "... the hysteria of crystal hugging astrology gazing non scientists who set about ripping up trials and making a fuss about nothing because they feared a USA company might be at the back of the cupboard somewhere" well, that's just the sort of unhelpful language which besets a 'grown-up' debate on GM: tahnk you DaisyRoots

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    martin wallis

    Tuesday, February 26, 2013

  • FYI, GF is former VC "hot shot" in the life sciences field, aka get Government to pump a tonne of cash into research and his chums will clean-up on the patents etc. And D.R. I take back my original comment - should've said "cynically cash in". I mean, he has been an MP for how long? Not quite as bad as Smith - MP since 2009 and only just woken up to youth unemployment problem in her constituency.

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    Mr Cameron Isaliar

    Monday, February 25, 2013

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