Ex-minister Lord Sainsbury of Turville urges fresh debate on GM crops

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A former science minister called today for the debate on the cultivation of genetically modified crops to be reopened, warning that it would be "very foolish" to rule out use of the technology in the UK.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville, who served in Tony Blair's Department for Trade and Industry from 1998 to 2006, said earlier discussions - which saw GM crops branded "Frankenstein foods" by opponents - lacked scientific evidence and was "not very productive".



He warned that the UK risked being left behind by countries like India and China which are planting millions of acres of GM crops, and said the technology could play a "vitally important" role in feeding a global population predicted to reach 9 billion by 2050.



Various types of GM crop plant have been grown for research and development purposes at a number of field sites in England since 1993, but there has been no commercial cultivation of GM crops.



Development of GM farming in Europe has been held back by EU legislation requiring collective approval of any commercial cultivation, though there were moves in Brussels earlier this year to hand back decision-making powers on the issue to individual states.



Lord Sainsbury will make his plea for a reassessment of GM in a speech at the British Science Association festival in Birmingham today.



He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: "I think the time has come to have again the debate about GM crops, because it is 12 years since we had that last very fraught and, I think, not very productive debate about it.



"Twelve years on, we have got 30 million acres across the world of GM crops, we have got pretty much all the cotton industry in India and China on those kinds of crops and of course people are now beginning to think seriously about what is the major problem we face in the world, which is how we feed 9 billion people in 2050.



"We need now to have the debate again, because in the last debate there was not proper scientific evidence put on the table. We need that scientific evidence because GM crops can play an important part in this big problem."



Lord Sainsbury acknowledged that many of the ambitious claims made by the companies behind the technology for the benefits of GM had yet to deliver results, but said that, in time, he expected the genetically-altered crops to have as large an impact as computers in "changing the way we live".



Much of the required increase in food productivity would have to be delivered by changes in agricultural practices, he said.



But he added: "I think to rule out GM, which is this major new biotechnology, would be very foolish.



"When you look at the scale of the problem, does it make any sense to rule out this vitally important new technology which in time, I think, anyone would agree will be as important as IT (information technology) in changing the way we live?"

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