Leading article: Genetically modified food for thought

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The prospect of a hungry century looms. On our present course, we are caught in a pincer. Climate change is likely to turn much farmland around the globe into desert. And the growth of the global population will increase demand for food. Yields will fall and prices will rise. That is a recipe for starvation.

Professor Robert Watson, the chief scientific adviser at the Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs, argues in an interview with this newspaper today that the policy response of all governments, including our own, to this "nightmare scenario" should be greater support for genetically-modified crop technologies.

The potential benefits to mankind from GM are real. If crops can be genetically modified to be drought-resistant, or to grow on formerly barren land, they could well play an important role in feeding the planet in the coming decades.

The problem is that we are some way from developing such super crops. Instead, the crops which dominate the GM market are herbicide-resistant strains developed by Monsanto and a handful of other pesticide manufacturers. These allow farmers to soak the land in chemicals. If such ultra-intensive farming techniques were to be used in Britain's crowded countryside, it would threaten ecological disaster.

The central failure of our own Government on GM has been its inability to differentiate between the hypothetical technologies which hold out the welcome prospect of bringing marginal land into cultivation, and the existing technologies which destroy natural diversity. It is this ambivalence that has stoked the suspicion of environmentalists, prompting some activists to vandalise scientific GM trials.

If the Government is going to throw its support behind GM technology, ministers need to be explicit about what they are supporting. And they must establish a divide between commercial interests and the needs of the world's food consumers. A programme sponsoring independent research into drought-resistant crop strains, and other socially beneficial innovations, would have a chance of winning public support; a policy of carelessly throwing open Britain's markets to the pesticide giants – quite rightly – would not.

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