Well-known environmental campaigner Mark Lynas has used the Oxford Farming Conference as a platform to declare that farmers should be free to choose genetically modified (GM) technology if they want to.

He also demanded anti-GM protesters stop hijacking future food production.

Mr Lynas controversially changed from being a sceptic of GM to a supporter after studying the science involved.

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He told the conference yesterday that "the GM debate is finished", adding: "We don't need to continue to discuss it. You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food."

Earlier in the conference, Defra (the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs) Secretary of State Owen Paterson told delegates: "We need to be able to translate research into new products, processes and technologies.

"When we're talking about innovation, we should consider GM. In 2011, 16 million farmers in 29 countries grew GM products on 160 million hectares. That's 11% of the world's arable land.

"To put it in context, that is 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.

"As well as making the case at home, we also need to go through the rigorous processes the EU has in place to ensure the safety of GM crops.

"I believe that GM offers great opportunities, but I also recognise we owe a duty to the public to reassure them that it is a safe and beneficial innovation."

Support for GM technology by the scientific community has been steadily growing. The European Commission's chief scientific advisor, Anne Glover, said last summer that GM organisms pose no greater risk than those farmed in a conventional way, adding: "There was no evidence GMs had any impact on human, environmental or animal health."