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New technologies could benefit agriculture and the environment

[Wednesday 29 March 2006]

Society could be losing out on the environmental benefits of new agricultural technologies because regulators are only looking for their potential damage.

That is the stark finding published in a new discussion document produced by leading environment scientists on the Government's Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE).

Defra: Changes in farming practice have impacted on biodiversity
Defra: Changes in farming practice have impacted on

The group has been considering the effectiveness of GM crop trials carried out on UK farms, and while the scientists strongly endorse the need to make sure that new crops and farming practices are not going to damage biodiversity, they argue that the current regulatory system is flawed, as it does not weigh this damage against the potential benefits for the environment.

Professor Jules Pretty, one of the authors of the report, said:

"We need to ensure that society does not lose out on the potential benefits of new technologies because we are looking too narrowly at the problems.

"For example, if we only ask whether non-food crops are damaging biodiversity then we could lose out on their huge potential to help us tackle climate change."

Defra has now linked the report to the wider issue of changes that have taken place in farming practices; particularly the intensification of agriculture over the last 50 years.

The Defra review highlights the importance of increasing biodiversity on Britain's farms, as well as the need for agreed standards when judging the effect of GM crops and other changes to farming practices on the wider environment.

Environment Minister Elliot Morley said: "Changes in farming practice have impacted on biodiversity, but it is clear that farmers are increasingly aware of the wider environmental effect of their work.

"Environmental conditions linked to CAP payments as well as the strong take up of environmental stewardship schemes, with 1.7m hectares of English countryside under environmentally friendly management, will have a positive impact on farmland wildlife."

The report comes at a time when the Government is trying to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture, yet Ministers are encountering obstacle after obstacle.

Environment Secretary Margaret Becket has faced tough questions in the House of Commons over the failure to get new subsidy payments to farmers by the end of March as promised; and on top of that, a leading conservation organisation has described the Government's newly launched pesticides strategy as nothing more than "a work in progress".

"The government has had two years to come up with measures to address pesticide damage to both wildlife and human health, yet its strategy falls a long way short of the action that is needed," said Jim Densham, Agriculture Policy Officer at the RSPB.

"There are no targets for reducing pesticide use and too much emphasis on achieving results through undeveloped action plans.

Two years have passed and disappointingly little progress has been made."

The RSPB is now calling for the strategy to be quickly developed into one which properly tackles the damage the organisation insists pesticides do to the environment in the countryside, towns and gardens.

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