Against The Grain: 'GM crops do not harm health'

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Chris Leaver is Sibthorpian Professor of Plant Science at Oxford University. He argues that genetically modified food is safe and necessary.

The big challenge in the next 50 years is to doube crop production on the same area of land in the face of climate change and decreased water supplies. Modern agriculture has successfully produced safe food thanks to mechanisation, agrochemicals and plant breeding – "the green revolution". But keeping people fed has depleted the topsoil, resulting in deforestation and desertification.

GM crops have stood the test of time. Last year, 247 million GM crop acres were successfully farmed by 10 million farmers in 22 countries, home to more than half the world's population. Yields have increased due to herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant crops by the introduction of a single gene derived in each case from common soil bacteria. The proteins produced from these genes are non-toxic to animals and the insecticidal gene is derived from Bt bacteria, which is also sprayed on organic crops.

Diseases like potato blight can be controlled by a single GM protein approach, whereas organic farmers spray with carcinogenic copper. GM gives us crops that are drought-resistant, enrich vital nutrients, remove natural toxins, and help to solve health problems such as vitamin A deficiency and allergies. Almost all animal feed includes GM corn and soy. Many of our clothes, and even our euro notes, come from GM cotton.

Any negative effects that slipped through decades of testing would have shown themselves by now. GM crop regulation is gold-plated. Instead of making tens of thousands of genetic changes in plant breeding, with GM you insert a gene with a known single beneficial trait into the plant, so it is far less invasive. You have complete genetic information; you know what the protein specified by the gene does; and it is extensively tested in the laboratory and in feeding trials.

The rest of the world is moving ahead with biotech. UK laboratories have closed down because our knowledge base has moved to India, China and the Americas. Meanwhile, the organic lobby sells food by spreading scare stories and untruths. None of its claims of catastrophe have come about. The World Health Organisation, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and other international and regulatory bodies have reported no evidence of health or environmental harm from GM.