Gordon Brown is calling on the European Union to relax its rules on importing genetically modified animal feed in a further sign of the Government's willingness to embrace the controversial technology. Mr Brown believes GM crops are vital to the attempt to cut spiralling food prices.
His proposal comes the day after The Independent revealed that the Environment minister, Phil Woolas, has held private talks with the biotechnology industry about relaxing Britain's policy on the use of GM crops.
The Prime Minister also signalled that he is happy to see a public debate over whether GM crops should be grown commercially in Britain to reduce global prices by boosting production. His spokesman said last night: "His view is that we must be guided by the scientific evidence."
Ministers who support GM crops believe there are no convincing arguments against them. They want to turn the tables on environmental groups who campaigned successfully against widespread GM production in Britain during the last government review in 2004. Although there is no ban, the ministers want the rules changed in light of the food crisis, as no GM crops are currently being grown commercially in this country.
At a two-day summit in Brussels which began last night, EU leaders were urged to "bite the bullet" and embrace GM products as a solution to rocketing food prices. The plea came from Jose Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission. Several EU countries, led by France, are unconvinced that "Frankenstein foods" are safe.
At the meeting, Mr Brown suggested allowing more GM animal food into the EU. The move may raise safety fears because contaminated feed was blamed for the outbreak in Britain of BSE in the 1990s.
The Commission fears that Europe could run short of animal feed because of its strict licensing regime, which could further raise food prices. Europe is heavily dependent on imports as it does not have enough land to both farm animals and grow the feed they need. The other elements of the Brown plan are a global trade deal; further reform of the Common Agricultural Policy; a review of the role to be played by biofuels; and a plan to use aid for poor nations for new technology farm products.
The Independent revealed yesterday that ministers believe Britain's cautious approach to GM should be relaxed because of current global food problems. But the Government's rethink provoked a furious backlash from opponents of GM crops.
Tricia O'Rourke, a spokeswoman for Oxfam, said: "The present food crisis needs more than a technology fix. More focus is needed on sustainable technology that 400 million smallholders can use to improve their productivity."
Caroline Lucas, a Green Party MEP, added: "There are no guarantees that GM crops are safe, sustainable or the solution to the problem of hunger. Over 70 per cent of citizens and several governments in the EU have expressed concerns over the negative effects that such crops may have on human health, biodiversity and the environment."
Friends of the Earth accused ministers of falling for "hype" by GM firms. Its GM campaigner Clare Oxborrow said: "GM crops do not increase yields or tackle hunger and poverty."
In response, a Downing Street said: "As Phil Woolas has reiterated, it is... our position that safety is the top priority and that GM crops are to be considered on a case-by-case basis, based entirely on the science."
So, what benefits do GM crops bring us?
In theory, GM technology might bring countless benefits to us all, from crops that can be grown in droughts to crops that might have much bigger yields. Most of the world would welcome both. However – and this is at the heart of the controversy – neither of these modifications is on offer at the moment. The vast majority of GM crops currently on the market are engineered only in one of two, quite similar ways: to be tolerant of ultra-powerful weedkillers, or to be resistant to insect pests.
Who benefits from the modifications?
Principally farmers, especially large-scale agribusiness farmers in countries such as the US or Argentina, because the genetic engineering simplifies and cheapens the business of applying pesticides and herbicides to crops. Using the ultra-powerful "broad-spectrum" herbicides which crops such as maize and soya can be engineered to tolerate, a single pesticide dressing – which kills everything except the crop – can replace several such treatments with conventional pesticides, thus saving time, labour and money.
But doesn't this also produce bigger yields, which would be vital at a time of global food shortages?
Unfortunately not. In fact, GM crops can even produce smaller yields. There is plenty of evidence, for example an April 2006 report from the United States Department of Agriculture stating that "currently available GM crops do not increase the yield potential of a hybrid variety. In fact, yield may even decrease if the varieties used to carry the herbicide- tolerant or insect-resistant genes are not the highest yielding cultivars".
So why on earth are the GM companies concentrating simply on herbicide-tolerance and insect-resistance?
Take Monsanto, the world leader in GM products, busy marketing its herbicide-tolerant maize and soya. The ultra-powerful weedkiller its crops can live with, glyphosate (trade name Roundup) is made by... Monsanto, of course! And what sort of company is Monsanto, even if it presents itself as an agribusiness firm? Yes, you've guessed it – it's a weedkiller company. Monsanto gave us Agent Orange, the defoliant used by the US to destroy jungles during the Vietnam War. Producing herbicide-tolerant crops is a fantastic way for it to sell vast amounts of its core products.
So why aren't drought-resistant crops, say, on the market yet?
Probably because of the culture in which GM crops have been developed – not so much in universities or national government laboratories, but, like pharmaceuticals, in the research departments of big companies such as Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta and BSAF. The dominant aim of these companies is to maximise profits rather than to pull the world out of poverty and hunger. However, in the developing countries, governments and universities are now working on drought-resistant crop strains.
But can GM crops actually cause harm to people and to the environment?
There is no doubt that the "broad-spectrum" weedkillers used with herbicide-tolerant crops would have a devastating effect on farmland wildlife if widely grown in Britain. The GM companies will tell you that the dosage of these pesticides will be less. That is true. What they don't tell you, however, is that the impact will be greater. As for effects on people, there does not appear to be a body of convincing evidence showing any GM crops or foods so far cause harm to humans.
Are there any GM foods on the shelves in Britain?
There is a very small amount of soya oil, labelled as GM. The tomato paste that was the first GM product more than a decade ago was withdrawn when sales collapsed after people discovered its GM origin. A significant amount of GM soya and maize is now brought into Britain as animal feed from the US and South America, and items such as milk and processed chicken which have been produced with this feed will be on the shelves – but will not be labelled GM.