GM crops have a role in preventing world hunger, chief scientist says

The Government should approve trials to develop crops resistant to climate change that would feed a growing population

GM crops have a role to play in preventing mass starvation across the world caused by a combination of climate change and rapid population growth, a senior government scientist said yesterday.

Professor Robert Watson, the chief scientific adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), called for UK trials of GM foods, arguing that the Government needs to be more open with the public about the risks and benefits of genetically modified foods.

"Over the next 20 to 50 years, the population is going to increase from 6.5 to 9 billion. There will be more extreme weather, more demand for food, meat, and water, a changing climate: it is a very challenging situation, which, if we don't deal with it, could become a nightmare scenario," said Professor Watson. "We have to look at all the technologies, policies and practices, all forms of bio-tech, including GM."

"We need to have trials in the UK, and to make them open and transparent," Professor Watson added. "We'd have to protect them, to stop them getting trashed. There are a whole range of situations in which science can play a very important role. We'll need seeds which are more temperature- and pest-tolerant."

The suggestion that the Government should resume trials of GM crops, which halted in 2008, has generated criticism from environmental campaigners who point out that the growth of herbicide-resistant GM crops in countries such as Argentina and the US has seen dramatic increases in pesticide use and created pesticide-resistant "super-weeds".

"If the Government does make the mistake of approving new field trials, then they should prepare themselves for the response of local communities, who will be worried about the risks that these crops pose," said Clare Oxborrow, senior food campaigner at Friends of the Earth. "The issues that applied a few years ago still apply. The risks of contamination have not been addressed; nor have any health and safety concerns."

A 2008 trial by Leeds University, in which potatoes were genetically modified to resist a parasitic worm, provoked anger from local residents and was destroyed by environmentalists. In addition to environmental fears about loss of bio-diversity and harm to other crops, consumers are also concerned about the possible health risks posed by GM food.

A study conducted by Eurobarometer in 2008 which surveyed 25,000 EU citizens found that 61 per cent thought that animal cloning was morally wrong. Meanwhile, a Gallup poll in 2005 found that 54 per cent of Britons were opposed to bio-technology in food production.

Professor Watson acknowledged that the subject is controversial. "It is similar to nuclear power," he said. "We have to look at all the risks and benefits, real and perceived, and tell the public what we are trying to achieve."

In 2008, however, Professor Watson led a study for the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, of which he is the director, which found that GM foods are likely to play only a small role in feeding the world's poor. The report highlighted that the "assessment of the technology lags behind its development".

The chief scientist's comments add weight to the claims of the Royal Society which last month argued that GM crops will prove important in preventing future food shortages. The controversial report called for a 10-year research programme, in which £200m a year would be spent on science that improves crops and sustainable crop management – including research into GM crops.

However, Professor Watson emphasised that GM foods could only play one part in solving a world food crisis, stressing that improving farming in developing countries is also vital. He recommends ending farming subsidies in developed countries, which would make the price of food produced in developing nations more competitive. He also spoke of the need to improve infrastructure, such as loans for farmers, and improve African farmers' education.

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