Leading article: We need an honest debate on GM

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The Independent Online

The news – which The Independent discloses today – that supermarkets fear they may run out of food free of genetic modification – is certain to alarm sections of the environmentalist movement. Opponents of GM food will suspect that the Government and the supermarket chains are teaming up to overturn the latter's decade-long ban on the sale of GM foods by claiming the ban has now become unsustainable.

It is no secret that some supermarket bosses want to see the ban ended and believe they caved in on the use of GM foods too quickly in response to public opposition. But the claims being advanced by the big grocers cannot be shrugged aside, above all their insistence that as sourcing GM-free foods becomes more difficult, the price of such foods has risen already by about 20 per cent.

One of the big problems over GM crops is that the debate, such as it is, has become more like trench warfare. Each side blasts the public with a barrage of fears, hopes and opinions dressed up as hard facts. Each side also appears to believe it has a monopoly on virtue as well as knowledge. The Government, meanwhile, seems to favour greater use of GM food, but only discretely and through smoke signals. It has yet to make its views plain.

This is not the way forward. If the ban on GM foods is becoming difficult to uphold, it is imperative that the country is not bounced into accepting a fait accompli. People must have a chance to listen to, and join, a more open discussion in which hear the pros and cons of GM crops are debated by impartial experts that are not obviously tied to a particular outcome. This is clearly not the case with either of the two main sources of public information, the GM seed companies and the environmental campaigners.

Only when the evidence has been put under the spotlight can we hope to reach a consensus of whether concerns for health and potential damage to the environment should automatically outweigh hopes that the wider use of GM crops could help solve the world food crisis. As the world's population climbs, the need for a more rational, and conclusive, debate than we have had so far becomes ever more pressing.