Environment Secretary Owen Paterson machinegunned out his GM crop manifesto yesterday. To cut a long story short, relaxing a strict EU regime which effectively bans farmers from growing genetically modified crops in Europe would herald a desperately needed “green revolution”, he told an audience in Hertfordshire.
Such a revolution would go a long way to solving the crisis of feeding the world's rapidly growing population by dramatically increasing yields. Furthermore, GM could bring clear health benefits, he said, pointing to golden rice, a grain strain being engineered to provide vitamin A to counter blindness in children.
GM crops are also healthier as they are subjected to greater scrutiny and could be applied beyond food, for example to combat diseases such as ash dieback and in developing new medicines. With health, safety and efficiency ticked off, Paterson finished up by pointing out that there were also environmental benefits to GM, as greater productivity freed up space for "biodiversity, nature and wilderness" and resistant-plants reduced the need for pesticides.
GM may be one of the controversial topics of our times, but few would dispute that the Environment Secretary has laid out a wonderful vision or that the fundamental intention of genetically modified crops is honourable. But can we say with certainty that genetically engineered plants are safe? And this is where the controversy begins: heated debate, scaremongering and seemingly questionable science.
Opponents argue that GM crops could foster stronger pests, diseases and weeds that adapt to engineered plants and that the injected genes could cause problems by "jumping" to other plants. They also say that since the first GM plant was created in the US in 1994 genetic engineering has promised much but delivered little.
Nonetheless, there does appear to be a growing consensus that GM is safe and that the potential benefits are huge. The chief safety argument is that in the two decades since GM was introduced and with 28 countries now cultivating them for consumption by hundreds of millions of people, no-one has been found to have died or fallen ill directly as a result of eating GM. This is in contrast to organic beansprouts, which killed 53 people in Germany in 2011.
As Mr Paterson pointed out yesterday, the European Commission's chief scientist, Professor Anne Glover, has said: "There is no substantiated case of any adverse impact on human health, animal health or environmental health." The EC has done the most comprehensive analysis of the risks of GM foods, examining 130 research projects carried out by 500 groups over 25 years.
But while the lack of illness from GM is comforting, many still have doubts about the potential for the long-term fallout from genetic engineering, especially as it has only become widespread (outside Europe) in the past decade. Given the massive potential benefits of GM and the lack of credible evidence that it has caused problems, we would cautiously back the development of the technology. But the industry is crying out for a really authoritative, comprehensive, independent, credible analysis of the dangers of GM - and it is a sad indictment of the system that we don't already have one.