Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, will officially kick off his campaign to bring genetically modified crops to the UK today by calling on the government, industry and scientists to join forces to convert the public in the face of widespread fear and scepticism.
Mr Paterson, who ultimately wants the European Union to relax very tight restrictions on growing GM plants, wants to make Britain a centre for GM research and development, which has the potential to become a multi-billion pound industry. He will begin by arguing what he claims is the moral case for “engineering” crops.
At a speech in Hertfordshire, Mr Paterson will say: “I believe there are significant economic, environmental and international development benefits to GM but I am conscious of the views of those who have concerns and who need reassurance on this matter.”
“I recognise that we - government, industry, the scientific community and others - owe a duty to the British public to reassure them that GM is a safe, proven and beneficial innovation,” he will add, in the speech due to be delivered this morning at Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, where a controversial trial of GM wheat is being carried out.
“Used properly GM promises effective ways to protect or increase crop yields. It can also combat the damaging effects of unpredictable weather and disease on crops. It has the potential to reduce fertiliser and chemical use, improve the efficiency of agricultural production and reduce post-harvest losses,” he will say.
The Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council (BBSRC) welcomed Mr Paterson's endorsement of GM, while pointing out that it is not provide a solution to the growing food crisis by itself.
“GM is one tool in a range of options that can help us tackle complex problems, such as the need to produce enough food for a growing population,” said Douglas Kell, chief executive of the council, which funds research and training projects.
GM crops are created by taking genes with beneficial qualities from other organisms and injecting them into the plant. They can be engineered to grow faster, increase their resistance to weeds, pests and pesticides, produce extra nutrients or survive harsher weather conditions.
However, while many scientists strongly believe in the benefits of GM crops, opposition remains widespread, both among scientists and the general public.
Opponents argue that it is far too early to conclude that GM crops - which were first produced in the US in 1994 - are safe to eat. They are also concerned that adopting GM crops could foster stronger pests, diseases and weeds that evolve to adapt to engineered plants and that the injected “rogue” genes could cause problems by spreading to other plants.
Mike Childs, head of policy, research and science at Friends of the Earth, said: “There is no evidence GM crops will deliver for farmers or food security. Despite decades of research, there is still no miracle crops to tackle the challenges agriculture faces, such as climate change, soil degradation, water shortages and growing demand.”
Underling the scale of public opposition to GM foods, a survey from YouGov this month found that only 21 per cent of the population supported the technology, while 35 per cent opposed it.
In the most comprehensive analysis of the risks of GM foods, the European Commission examined 130 research projects carried out by 500 groups over 25 years. In December 2010, the EC concluded there is “no scientific evidence associating genetically modified organisms with higher risks for the environment or food and feed safety than conventional plants or organisms”.