UPDATE 1-UK farm minister calls for speedier EU GMO approvals

(Adds response from Friends of the Earth)

OXFORD, England, Jan 3 (Reuters) - Britain's farming and

environment minister Owen Paterson on Thursday called for an

acceleration in the European Union's approval process for

genetically modified (GMO) crops which he said offered benefits

including less pesticide use.

"I think we need to work with like-minded partners to move

the (GMO) legislation along at a European level because it is

going grindingly slowly and we are getting further and further

behind," he told reporters at the Oxford Farming Conference.

There has been strong public opposition to GMO crops across

much of the European Union, linked partly to concerns about

their safety, which has helped to slow the approval process.

"There are definite gains but there is a big battle to be

won with the public," Paterson said.

Mairead McGuinness, a member of the European Parliament's

agriculture committee, said that lobbying against GMO crops had

become less intense in the last couple of years but said

opposition remained significant.

"The view for some time of many in the European Parliament

has been that the public don't want it and therefore we are not

going to have it," she told reporters.

Paterson, in an earlier speech to the conference, said GMO

crops could offer benefits including a potential significant

reduction in pesticide and diesel use while he also recognised

the need for EU safety checks to reassure the public.

"This is not a frightening new spooky technology, this is

something that is well established in very large parts of the

world," he told reporters, adding that in 2011, GMO crops were

grown by 16 million farmers in 29 countries.

Paterson also cited benefits from GMO crops such as golden

rice which he said could have the potential to stop 400,000 to

500,000 young people going blind.

Golden rice has been genetically modified to help combat

Vitamin A deficiency which affects millions of children and

pregnant women and can cause irreversible blindness.

Environmental group Friends of the Earth, however, said in a

statement issued in response to Paterson's comments that GMO

crops did not provide the solution to food challenges.

"They (GMO crops) are largely being developed to benefit

multinational biotech firms that are gaining control of the seed

industry, not to feed poor people in developing countries,"

senior food and farming campaigner Clare Oxborrow said.

"World food production needs a radical overhaul, but this

should be based on less intensive practices that increase

agricultural diversity, deliver resilience to the impacts of

climate change and benefit local communities."

(Reporting by Nigel Hunt; editing by David Cowell and Jason