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Government life science advisor George Freeman says Norfolk could play a leading role in new ‘agricultural revolution’

07:55 25 February 2013

George Freeman MP talking about global farming challenges at The Royal Norfolk Show. Picture: Ian Burt

George Freeman MP talking about global farming challenges at The Royal Norfolk Show. Picture: Ian Burt

Archant © 2012

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.

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