By Richard Lochhead

This week I announced that the Scottish Government will take advantage of new EU measures that allow Scotland to prevent the growing of genetically modified (GM) crops in Scotland in line with our long-standing policy to protect our country’s clean, green status.

There are no genetically modified crops grown in Scotland and we should keep it that way.

We are a nation with a global reputation for the beauty of our natural environment and for the excellence of our food and drink produce. It would be foolhardy to jeopardise our unique selling point especially at a time when many around the world remain sceptical about the benefits of GM. There are also ethical considerations to be taken into account such as who would own GM technology and who would control access to it. The debate continues on the long-term consequences of GM.

Our booming food and drink sector has generated 117,900 jobs in Scotland and is worth an incredible £14 billion to the country’s economy – up more than 50 per cent since this Government came to power in 2007.

Scottish food and drink has a world-class reputation for fresh, tasty and high quality produce with publicly recognised health and environmental credentials, in strong demand both at home and abroad and often attracts a premium price.

This success has been built without significant demand for GM products from Scottish consumers or our export markets. One major US-based food importer told me recently there will be growing demand for food from non-GM countries.

Scotland should stay focussed on niche and high value markets, rather than commodities where we know we cannot compete.

We need to focus on exploiting our natural advantages and reputation. For example, Scotland’s £80 million seed potato sector exports to dozens of countries around the world, a number of which specifically require confirmation that no genetically modified crops are grown here.

That is why the Scottish Government strongly supports a precautionary approach to the cultivation of genetically modified crops.

Here, as in the rest of Europe, genetically modified crops are strictly regulated by the EU, whose own approach to GM is guided by the precautionary principle. That is why it has put in place a robust legal framework and stringent authorisation process before genetically modified crops are permitted to be cultivated in Europe.

Under new EU rules, countries can opt out of these cultivation consents on a case-by-case basis.

Scotland is one of the first countries to confirm it will request to be excluded from genetically modified crop authorisations including the single variety of genetically modified maize already approved and six other GM maize crops awaiting authorisation.

And I am confident other countries will follow in our footsteps. Several member states have spoken out against GM whilst parts of France, Germany and Italy all have regions that have declared themselves GM free.

I respect the views of those in the scientific community who support the development of GM technology but decisions can't be based on science alone. I recognise that GM research is a fast-moving field and the technology is developing rapidly, and the Scottish Government will continue to receive expert advice from our scientific advisors and others.

Prohibiting the commercial cultivation of genetically crops will not affect research as it is carried out in Scotland, where the contained use of genetically modified plants is permitted for scientific purposes, for example in laboratories or sealed glasshouse facilities.

But the Scottish Government’s policy is not based solely on the precautionary principle. We must also take into account the wider context including the reputation of our country – the preventative principle – and the will of our people, the democratic principle.

This is a pivotal time for Scottish agriculture, and the time is right to take stock and consider carefully what we want primary food production in this country to look like in five, 10, 20 years’ time and beyond. That is why I recently kicked off a national discussion on the future of Scottish agriculture. Clearly, there will continue to be debate about GM and the developing scientific evidence base as part of this.

GM policy in Scotland should be guided by what's best for our economy and our own agricultural sector rather than the priorities of others.

And I firmly believe that our GM policy is right for sound ethical reasons but is also right for Scotland's economy and reputation.