Badger culls will go ahead this summer, Defra Secretary Owen Paterson has pledged, despite the decision to postpone them late last year.
Speaking during his first address as Defra secretary of state to the Oxford Farming Conference, he said that bovine TB remained a huge problem and that research in this country over the past 15 years had clearly demonstrated that cattle and badgers transmit the disease to each other.
Citing experience from abroad, he said that cattle cannot be controlled “without also bearing down on it in the surrounding wildlife population”.
He said: “In New Zealand, the number of infected cattle and deer herds has been reduced from 1,700 in the mid 1990s to fewer than 100 in 2011. This is a result of rigorous biosecurity, strict cattle movement controls and proactive wildlife management.”
The decision to postpone the cull last autumn, recommended by the National Farmers Union following weeks of heavy rain, was described by Mr Paterson as “a disappointing one for us all”.
The two culls – in Somerset and Gloucestershire – were postponed after farm leaders said they could not guarantee culling higher-than-expected badger numbers.
Mr Paterson said he had established a project board with all key partners – including DEFRA, Natural England and the police – to oversee the delivery of the pilot culls.
He thanked the NFU for the “huge amount of work” they put in on the issue and added “the pilots will go ahead this summer”.
Elsewhere there were calls for debate on the risks and benefits of GM crops.
He said: “In 2011, 16 million farmers in 29 countries grew GM products on 160 million hectares. That’s 11 per cent of the world’s arable land. To put it in context that’s six times larger than the surface area of the UK.
“I fully appreciate the strong feelings on both sides of the debate. GM needs to be considered in its proper overall context with a balanced understanding of the risks and benefits.
“We should not, however, be afraid of making the case to the public about the potential benefits of GM beyond the food chain, for example, significantly reducing the use of pesticides and inputs such as diesel.”
He also highlighted the need to address the rigorous processes that the EU has in place to ensure the safety of GM crops.
“I believe that GM offers great opportunities but I also recognise that we owe a duty to the public to reassure them that it is a safe and beneficial innovation,” he said.
Mr Paterson also touched on other areas such as his Government’s plan to invest £530m in superfast broadband for rural areas by 2015 and a £150m programme to get mobile phone masts into the countryside.
He also urged the farming and food industries to capitalise on the export opportunities that exist across the globe. He said that British food has an “excellent reputation”, as well as high animal welfare standards, and “totally reliable traceability”.