A government life sciences adviser told Norfolk’s farmers it would be “criminally irresponsible” not to explore the potential of genetically-modified crops to feed the world’s burgeoning population.

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Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman called for a renewed public debate on GM foods during his speech at the Norfolk Farming Conference.

With the global population expected to reach nine billion by 2050 and food demand set to rise by 70pc, he said it was now essential that the EU changed its opposition to engineered crops.

He said the market for agricultural biotechnology in the rest of the world is valued at over £90bn and growing at 10-15pc annually.

And with developing nations such as the USA, China, Brazil and Argentina rapidly investing in the sector, he said it would be “madness” for Britain to be left behind.

Mr Freeman, who also chairs an all-party parliamentary group on science and technology in agriculture, said a change of public perception was needed about the technologies being pioneered in places like the John Innes Centre, where the conference was held.

“As Britain looks for ways to build a sustainable, export led economic recovery, and define a new role in the rapidly emerging global economy, the application of our world class expertise in agriculture, nutrition and plant science to support the fast growing markets in the developing world is a major opportunity we should seize,” he said.

“With the scale of the challenge facing us it would be criminally irresponsible not to look at our agricultural research base and give it a new direction.

“I am calling for a new debate on the role of agricultural sciences and that has to include a debate on GM food. It is not just about GM but, equally, we cannot ignore it.

“The scale of the adoption of these technologies around the world, whether you like it or not, has raised the question for British and European policy makers of are we going to turn our backs on it and stagnate, or are we going to contribute to it?

“The global value of biotech seed last year was $13.2bn Even if we never want to eat any food that comes from it, we should at least allow the UK to benefit from this growing market. The truth is if we are not very careful we are going to be left behind.”

Mr Freeman said more work needed to be done on what he called the “European problem”.

“We need to work together to ensure Europe either adopts an enlightened policy or gets out of the way and lets us develop an enlightened policy ourselves,” he said.

“This is not about a wholesale adoption of GM in the UK food chain. Consumers should be free to choose what they eat, and helped to make well informed choices based on excellent science-based regulation and labelling.

“But it would be irresponsible for us to turn our back against the enormous environmental and developmental benefits of GM and other agricultural innovation, at a time when the planet desperately needs these breakthroughs for sustainable development.”

Among the 400 delegates were MEP Stuart Agnew, who farms near Fakenham. He said: “Ten years ago, only a few farmers were brave enough to trial GM sugar beet, and now there will be trials of GM wheat. Virtually all of you here grow wheat, so if you want this to go ahead all of you have to register as trial growers so the ‘antis’ cannot say that no farmers are interested in growing it. If you act with cowardice, you will get what you deserve.”

Earlier in the conference, John Innes Centre director Dale Sanders said there was “not nearly enough dialogue” between the scientific and agricultural communities on how new technologies could be applied.

Prof Ian Crute, chief scientist at the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, told the conference that previous decades of food surpluses in Europe had led to “enormous complacencies” affecting investment in skills and research. Meanwhile, UK productivity has not risen at the same rate as competitors in Spain or the US.

“When food is plentiful, consumers can be quite selective and, if they choose to reject a particular technology, they can,” he said. “If economics play out as expected, that will change. I believe the consumer will become ‘technology agnostic’.”

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