for Sunday Herald, 27 April 2014
The UK environment secretary, Owen Paterson, has admitted breaching an agreement to make Scotland’s opposition to genetically modified (GM) crops clear to European ministers.
He promised the Scottish environment minister, Paul Wheelhouse, that he would say that Scotland took a different view on GM from Westminster during important negotiations at the European Union’s Environment Council in Brussels. But he then failed to do so because he used the wrong speaking notes.
Under interrogation by MSPs on the Scottish Parliament’s rural affairs committee last week, Paterson said it was “unfortunate” that he hadn’t said what had been agreed. “I talked to Paul beforehand, we agreed the speaking note and I have to confess I think I read the preceding one,” he said.
Paterson is a keen GM fan, telling a farmers’ conference in Oxford in January that Europe could become “the museum of world farming” if countries failed to embrace GM crops. The Scottish government, however, is opposed to the cultivation of GM crops, believing they could damage the environment and threaten the reputation of Scotland’s food and drink industry.
Wheelhouse told the Sunday Herald that he was “very disappointed” that Paterson failed to mention the need for regional autonomy on GM crop cultivation despite an agreement beforehand to do so. The Council meeting, which brought together environment ministers from across Europe on 3 March, was debating legislative proposals allowing countries to ban GM crops.
“This was the one thing that both the Scottish government and our counterparts in the Welsh Assembly government wanted raised, yet Mr Paterson didn’t mention it,” said Wheelhouse. “This makes a mockery of the claim that Scotland is properly represented in Brussels by Westminster.”
Wheelhouse wrote to Paterson after the meeting “seeking clarification on where he now stands”. But to date he has not received a response.
Rob Gibson, the Scottish Nationalist MSP who chairs the rural affairs committee accused Paterson of taking a “selfish negotiating stance”. The UK government cannot claim to represent Scotland’s views in Europe when UK ministers fail to say what’s been agreed, he argued.
He said: “How can our ministers trust any UK government minister who says he will take their views into account but when it comes to crunch negotiations ignore their previous pledges?”
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in London stressed that the failure to mention Scotland’s position on GM was a lone mistake, which had been accepted by Paterson. UK ministers were usually successful in making sure that Scotland’s view was properly represented.
A Defra spokesperson said: “The Secretary of State regularly meets with Scottish government ministers to ensure that their views on all policy areas including genetic modification are represented at European Union level.”