The UK will no long be able to hide behind Brussels

A protester dressed as a cow joins campaigners against genetically modified crops
A protester dressed as a cow joins campaigners against genetically modified crops

Love them or loathe them genetically modified (GM) crops and food are a global fact of life.

For years the debate on them here has been largely academic, because decisions about what can and cannot be grown are down to the European Commission. This means the UK government has not had to take a position although it has generally been more positive than others in the EU, including France and Germany. However with Brexit the government will no longer be able to hide behind Brussels. Instead it will have to decide a policy for the UK.

The DEFRA Secretary, Michael Gove, who is driving agricultural policy is certainly delivering mixed messages. He says he wants the UK to gain from having a technically efficient, progressive farming industry. At the same time he is promising a green Brexit, and the world’s highest animal welfare standards. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but that is how they are seen by the general public.

A farming industry embracing technology, including GM, can be green but that is not how controversial technologies are seen. The decisions taken will have major and long term implications for agriculture. If the government opts to be radical over GM it would be controversial with a lot of farmers, and certainly with the green lobby. No matter what the science may say, this is an emotional argument that would be difficult to win. If the UK broke away from years of stalemate in Brussels over GM crops, it would be an all but impossible task to secure a deal to sell food into the EU-27 single market. These are big issues for the industry, and to date there is no evidence they are even on the government’s radar.

Globally the onward march of GM crops continues. The acreage has increased every year, and South America is one of the big growth areas. This is why the EU is finding it difficult to secure non-GM soya – and why it has embarked on an ambitious EU-wide programme to boost protein production. The UK will have to decide whether it wants to go along with that programme, once it is outside the EU. This is just another issue on a long list that no-one seems to have yet even begun to draw up.

In 2016 – the last year for which figures are available – global production of GM crops rose by three per cent to 185 million hectares. They are now grown in 26 countries, including two in the EU – Croatia and Spain. Globally 19 countries growing GM crops are classed as developing, and the big users, not surprisingly, include the United States, Canada and Brazil.

Even if the UK does not opt to grow GM crops or ease restrictions on their use, trade has to be part of the equation. Countries where GM crops are the norm are high on the list of those with which the UK wants post-Brexit trade deals. Ministers have already said they will not allow in chlorine-washed chicken from the US, but it will be more difficult to hold that line over GM crops, where there is no scientific case for a ban. There may well be a public interest or moral argument against GM crops, but there is a big gap between that and science when it comes to trade negotiations. If the UK wants to export to its key target markets it will almost certainly have to give way over food standards.

Trade negotiations are always tough. The European Commission is learning that in its discussions with the Mercosur countries of South America. It has risked the wrath of Ireland, France and the European farming lobby by increasing its offer for reduced tariff access for beef from 70,000 to 100,000 tonnes. Now the Mercosur countries want more, and the Commission negotiators are in an increasingly difficult situation.

This is the reality the UK will face when fine political words from its target countries turn into hard face to face negotiations. The UK, arguably, has less to offer than the EU, with a market of just 60 million people against the prize of closer to 500 million for any trade deal concluded with the EU. The UK can only go for quick deals by giving way on issues important to these countries. Food is an obvious example, as underlined by the pressure the Mercosur countries are now exerting on the EU over beef.