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GMO crop rules should also weigh pluses: report

LONDON (Reuters) - Europe should weigh benefits as well as risks when evaluating new farm technologies like biotech crops to avoid stifling innovation that may be key to future food security, a report for the UK government said on Thursday.

A Romanian farmer shows genetically modified soybeans in the village of Varasti, Romania, in this May 21, 2004 file photo. Europe should weigh benefits as well as risks when evaluating new farm technologies like biotech crops to avoid stifling innovation that may be key to future food security, a report for the UK government said on Thursday. REUTERS/Bogdan Cristel

With agriculture facing huge challenges from climate change, rising world wealth levels and new crop-based biofuels, ACRE (Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment) said it was time for a more balanced and holistic approach to regulation.

“We need to get a better balance between the good and bad sides of novel technologies,” ACRE chairman Chris Pollock told a press conference.

“We can’t wall off avenues we may need in the future.”

In an advisory report for David Miliband, UK Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, ACRE said the current approvals system for genetically-modified (GM) crops of focusing purely on potential risks was unbalanced.

The report cited genetically modified herbicide tolerant beet, which was denied clearance for cultivation due to negative effects on weeds and invertebrates of the herbicide used.

But as under European Union rules only the risks were considered, evidence of any potential environmental benefits such as the reduced herbicide use leading to lower Co2 emissions were not considered.

BIOFUELS TOO

And this wider approvals process should be expanded to include changes in farming practices like biofuels that also have an environmental impact, the report said.

“Environmental benefits are now a major focus in the introduction of a number of other novel crops (e.g. energy crops) and agricultural management practices in the UK. There is no regulatory requirement to assess potential environmental costs in a fashion similar to GM crops,” it said.

The report, which is designed to stimulate discussion at European Union level, listed changes in agricultural practices that have been shown to have had an environmental impact at least as significant as those with GMO crops.

These included the change from spring to winter sowing for arable crops and a shift from hay cutting to silage production.

The prospect of some farmers switching into new crops to produce biofuels could have unforeseen consequences if left completely uncontrolled, particularly given the strains on food production that are likely in the years ahead.

“We could end up covering the land with crops that don’t actually produce food, and that may be a problem in the future,” Pollock said.

“It was only a generation ago that British agriculture was given the task of feeding the nation. That role may come back.”

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