Time for a re-think on GM crops?

 
Genetically modified (GM) maize plants Genetically modified maize plants

What would it take to break the impasse on GM crops?

That's a problem that has been exercising minds at the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, which is urging the government to adopt a strategic plan for agriculture that includes a central role for biotechnology.

Ministers will discuss their proposals, outlined in a new report Going For Growth, at a meeting with industry representatives, scientists and farmers later today.

The report sets out a comprehensive plan for investment in agricultural research its authors hope will put the UK back at the cutting edge of plant science, boost productivity and profitability in the farming sector, and help to resolve global issues of food security.

"Britain has a strong pedigree in agricultural research, including biotechnology," the report claims. But we're in danger of being left behind as other countries including China and Brazil encourage investment and surge ahead.

"The sector requires stronger political support to regain its competitive edge, to remove barriers to the commercialisation of research, and to put the UK at the centre of global agricultural innovation."

Of course agricultural innovation is about much more than just genetic modification, but it's the inclusion of a substantial section on the potential of biotechnology that's likely to raise the hackles of anti-GM campaigners.

Challenges

After the bruising rows of the 1990's - culminating in a series of public debates under the banner GM Nation, and the biggest open air experiments ever undertaken in the shape of the farm scale trials of genetically modified crops - an uneasy standoff has held sway. Although not illegal, to date no GM crops have been grown commercially in the British countryside.

But while this de facto moratorium has persisted the pressure to adopt a technology that is widely employed elsewhere around the world has intensified.

Price spikes for basic commodities in 2008 and 2010 have helped to focus attention on a series of interrelated and escalating problems - climate change, population growth, resource depletion and environmental degradation - that the government's Chief Scientist Sir John Beddington warns are brewing into "a perfect storm that presents a serious challenge to global food security".

Launching the government's Foresight Report: The Future of Food and Farming in 2011, he claimed we couldn't afford to turn our backs on any of the tools available to address these challenges.

"The fact is that we're not making any more land. If we're going to feed a growing population, raise the poorest out of poverty and address these problems of food security, then in some cases GM may actually be the answer. We've got to look for a significant and sustainable intensification of agriculture".

And the signs are that these arguments are beginning to gain some traction.

Recent polling suggests public hostility towards GM crops may have eased, and while the latest crop trial - of a variety of GM wheat that's been engineered to resist aphids - has re-ignited the controversy, attempts to organise a day of action to de-contaminate the countryside failed to attract enough protesters to force the issue.

Today's meeting, which has been organised by the MP George Freeman who chairs the Commons all party group on Science and Technology, will attempt to hammer out a strategic plan for agricultural research that will boost the UK economy and help meet the global food security challenge.

"The irony" he says "is that the UK is still regarded as a world leader in the field. We still have great research institutes around the country, but we need to build on those strengths, unlocking growth here and contributing to sustainable development around the world.

Of course not all views will be represented at the meeting. A fact that's not lost on Friends of the Earth's Clare Oxborrow. "A great many promises have been made about the potential of GM technology to feed the world" she says, "but so far precious little has been delivered. The government should take a long hard look at the evidence before accepting the industry's view".

Even so, the author of the report, the Agricultural Biotechnology Council's Dr Julian Little, believes it's time to seize the initiative.

"If we get it right, if we capture this opportunity, then we could really see the UK benefit. If we get it wrong then we'll see museum agriculture in Europe for the next 20 years".

 
Tom Feilden, Science correspondent, Today programme Article written by Tom Feilden Tom Feilden Science correspondent, Today

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