Irishman scotches ban on GM crops

AN IRISH businessman claims he can grow malting-quality barley in Argentina and get it to port for £50 a tonne and still make a profit – not a message that Scottish growers want to hear.

Jim McCarthy's speech at a conference in Carnoustie, Angus, set the audience of mainly arable farmers back on its heels. He also hit out at European governments for ruling out GM technology.

McCarthy has interests in land worldwide, and one of these businesses, Agro Terra, owns about 11,000 hectares of top-quality land in the South American country. Currently, it is growing maize and soya, but he produced figures showing costs that would work out at about 35 per tonne, leaving 15 per tonne for profit and haulage to the nearest port.

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He gave one example of how he was able to keep his costs low. For sowing his grain, he uses an 8m-wide drill and two tractormen each do an eight-hour shift, sleeping in a caravan next to the field. They do this seven days a week until the work is complete.

He admitted afterwards that the prospect of South American grain going into Scotch whisky might be a shock to those who live in this country.

But he stuck to his guns, saying that Scotch was an international drink and "the man in Shanghai" may like Scottish whisky, but he would not be too concerned about where the grain making the drink came from. "The point I want to make is that food and drink are international commodities and that suppliers with low costs of production are better placed to remain in business."

His crops in Argentina, mainly soya and maize, are all genetically modified and he declared himself an enthusiastic supporter of this new science.

He was also heavily critical of the attitude of governments in this country and in Europe for turning their backs on GM technology, saying he believed that European farmers were now being placed at a disadvantage in world markets because of this stance.

Although he farms land in Latvia and other Baltic states, he said he was unlikely to increase his interests in Europe, as he feared becoming "Europeanised", which he later explained was tied into too many regulations.

In South America, his pesticide costs are now very low, with GM varieties controlling most of the pests that attacked conventionally bred cultivars.

NFU Scotland president Jim McLaren, who was in the audience for McCarthy's speech, admitted that "my mailbox is filled everyday with people who are anti-GM", and he wanted to know how consumers could be assured of the safety of new GM varieties?

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McCarthy was in no doubt that the testing regime for these was strict and that there was no problem for those eating the produce from the 500 million acres of GM crops grown last year.

During his talk, McCarthy referred to the increasing population of the world and the responsibility that would fall on farmers to feed the extra mouths. It was not just a case of more people looking for food; he also predicted increased demand for a wider range of food as societies developed. Another angle on the GM debate emerged at the conference when plant scientist Dr Mark Taylor, from the Scottish Crop Research Institute at Invergowrie, revealed that a GM potato cultivar created at SCRI would be field-tested in Israel, because it was not allowed in the UK.

The cultivar being put on trial is a mix of the tuberosum and phureja potato genes, and the scientists believe that they have combined to create a much more flavoursome tattie.

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