The big question: is it time to start growing GM crops in Britain?

Genetic modification is a vexed question in this country. Christened 'Frankenfoods' amid the public backlash to the farm trials at the turn of the Millennium, politicians have sought to keep their distance from the subject.

A combine harvester at work in a fieldChris Ison, PA

But now scientists are trying to persuade ministers it is time to embrace biotechnology. In turn, the politicians look like they are open to suggestions. In fact, a new growth strategy being formulated over the next few months is expected to show greater government support for GM crops.

Farmers are keen for investment and the National Farmers' Union supports the growing of genetically modified crops.

Scientists say GM crops produce bigger yields, reduce the need for pesticides, offer health benefits and could help to feed the world.

But for every positive report there seems to be an equally convincing negative one. Research also shows GM crops can create 'superweeds', do not reduce pesticide use or increase yields, and they are not an effective cure for world hunger.

Growing GM crops in Britain is not illegal but to date, no one has grown them commercially.

The big question: is it time to start growing GM crops in Britain?

Zoe Vaughan

Yes: It is time to consider all options to help tackle global food security

 

Science has brought us amazing advances. It has provided cures for diseases, put men in space, saved lives and spawned an astonishing global communications network. All this and yet we don't trust it to put food in our mouths.

One thing that's as sure as the sunrise is that this planet's resources are finite. Our voracious consumption of these resources, however, is infinite. There will be nine billion people on this earth by 2050 and we need to feed them all.

Surely, then, it is time to consider all options available to help us tackle global food security, starting with genetic modification of crops.

Cross pollination and interbreeding already occur in nature. Plants and animals evolve to survive. Harnessing this power in the lab is not some crackpot Frankenstein moment but a scientifically valid way of providing food for the planet.

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Studies have shown it increases yields, cuts the use of pesticides, which have been linked to cancer and other diseases, and can even produce foods with health benefits.

A recent significant report has also shown that, contrary to popular belief, fields planted with GM crops deliver significant environmental benefits, increasing the number of natural predators such as spiders and ladybirds, which eat pests that blight plants.

Creating crops that are drought resistant could help countries where many people routinely starve to death.

Britain leads the way in this research but ministers are being warned that if they don't start backing biotechnology other countries will overtake us and we will be looking to them for help.

There are signs that Britain is ready for a sensible debate on GM crops far from the 'Frankenfood' hysteria of the late 1990s. A recent British Science Association survey found that public concern over GM crops has fallen by five per cent since 2003.

Whether this will translate to those willing to buy GM products, it's hard to say. But as feeding the world becomes tougher and food shortages lead to ever increasing supermarket prices, consumers might start to find they are less picky.

Steve Vaughan

No: No matter how you look at it, it's not natural

 

It's not just a GM ban, it's an M&S GM ban. And if the high street stalwart isn't stocking it then...

Actually, the store hasn't sold GM foods since 1999 and has no plans to change this. If you gave most people the choice of bread made with GM crops or bread made from traditionally grown crops, most would plump for tradition over technology.

Growing GM crops commercially is not banned in this country yet, to date, no-one ever has. This can only be because there is no demand for it and while the science might be there, unless someone's going to buy it there will be no massive investment in this country.

It's a hard sell to a sceptical public: sceptical because no matter how you look at it, it's not natural. Yes, cross pollination does happen in nature but it does not happen in a lab. The risks are different.

The results of testing have not yet given consumers confidence in safety. In short the bad reports seem to outweigh the good. Most recently, a comprehensive report by two genetic engineers said that the science is "crude and imprecise". The report, GM Myths and Truths, also found GM crops had a harmful effect on animals in laboratory feed trials, did not increase yields and promoted the growth of "super weeds" resistant to herbicides.

In the longer term growing GM crops is too big an experiment to carry out on the environment. One that once started cannot be reversed. As scientifically tweaked crops evolve so the whole food chain will alter to compensate with unpredictable consequences.

And that China invests so much in GM projects is not necessarily an advertisement for a renewed push in the field. That country has been subject to that many food scares - they even had pork that glowed in the dark.

The biotechnology community has yet to convince on the efficacy and safety of its GM products and until it does then I'm with M&S.