Britain could become a haven for genetically modified crops after leaving the EU, with Monsanto set to lead the GM charge.
A potential relaxation in policy on designer seeds has caught the attention of the US agricultural giant, which intends to seek talks with the government on ways it can expand its presence in Britain.
Monsanto, which is the subject of a $64bn (£48.5bn) bid from German drug developer Bayer, is understood to harbour ambitions to work with UK scientists on developing new seeds. At present, the EU strictly curtails development of GM crops.
A source close to Monsanto, which has a small presence in Britain, said the referendum outcome could mean there is an “emphasis on innovation above caution”. The source added: “The review of policy after Brexit is an opportunity. We are always open to talk to policymakers.”
Any increase in the production of genetically altered foods is likely to stoke controversy. While some academic institutions in Britain grow the crops for research, they are subject to a sales ban.
Opponents, among them Prince Charles, argue that disrupting the DNA of plants could produce harmful toxins or lead to the evolution of highly resistant weeds. Yet many scientists say GM crops — which can be designed to withstand drought, repel insects and increase yields — are essential to feed the world’s population, which is forecast to hit 10bn by 2050.
GM seeds are used widely in America and Asia but not in the EU. Trials of the crops are blocked in Germany and France, and have been opposed by politicians in Wales and Northern Ireland.
However, EU law makers voted last year to allow member states to cultivate GM crops that have already been approved by a European watchdog. This was hailed as a victory by British scientists, although farmers are still required to submit to a lengthy authorisation process.