Genetically modified (GM) foods are probably safer than those produced using conventional farming methods, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said, as he reignited a debate over the controversial technology.
Mr Paterson attacked critics who described GM produce as "Frankenfoods", insisting the crops could have important environmental benefits and help save lives in poorer countries.
The Environment Secretary called for changes in the way the crops are regulated in Europe, warning that British farmers and scientists were being forced to operate with "one hand tied behind their back".
In a major speech Mr Paterson said: "I believe that it's time to start a more informed discussion about the potential of genetically modified crops. A discussion that enables GM to be considered in its proper overall context with a balanced understanding of the risks and benefits."
Mr Paterson said that major European studies had concluded that there was "no scientific evidence associating GMOs (genetically modified organisms) with higher risks" for the environment or safety. They also concluded "the use of more precise technology and the greater regulatory scrutiny probably makes GMOs even safer than conventional plants and food".
The Environment Secretary said: "As with all technologies, public and environmental safety is paramount. The reality is that in Europe and elsewhere, GM is perhaps the most regulated of all agricultural technologies. There are some that describe GM crops as 'Frankenfoods', deliberately termed to imply that they pose a risk to human health and the environment. The truth is that products are subject to extensive testing and development in tightly controlled conditions - progressing from laboratory, to glasshouse, to field trials only when it's safe to do so."
Because GM food could be produced more efficiently, Mr Paterson suggested land could be returned to nature instead of farmed and pest or disease-resistant GM crops could also benefit wildlife. "We are currently debating the effects of pesticides on bees and other insects. In other parts of the world where GM crops are grown, plants are better protected against pests and insects are better protected against accidentally being sprayed," he said. "The farmer benefits. The consumer benefits. The environment benefits."
Mr Paterson spoke at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire, where he toured the only active GM crop trial in the UK, for wheat that has been engineered to contain a gene from peppermint that deters aphids and attracts their predator, a parasitic wasp. He said that an area seven times the size of the UK was being used to cultivate GM crops worldwide, but Europe risked being left behind.
The Government's move was criticised by green groups, who claim GM will not deliver the promised benefits and will prove a distraction from more sustainable ways of improving food security and agriculture in developing countries.
National Farmers' Union president Peter Kendall said: "I applaud Owen Paterson for the leadership he is showing on this issue. The NFU agrees that the UK, which is the natural home for science research, should be at the forefront of providing agricultural solutions, not watching from the sidelines. Rightly so, farmers fear being left behind. As Mr Paterson said, I also want British farmers to be able to develop the latest technologies so they can reap economic and environmental benefits. I welcome his commitment to getting the EU approvals system working. The Environment Secretary also asked all interested parties to help him and said he would back them in return. I, and the NFU, will take up this challenge."