By Harry Phibbs
Follow Harry on Twitter
Paul has already given some of the context of the Environment Secretary Owen Paterson's speech this morning making the case for GM food.
Mr Paterson soon made quite clear his own support for GM but added he was "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. We must lead this discussion, explaining to the public not only what GM technology is but also how it can help."
The world's population is growing, which means we must produce more food:
The recent OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook for 2012 to 2021 concluded that agricultural production needs to increase by 60 per cent over the next 40 years to meet the rising demand for food. Our growing population will put further pressures on land, energy and water – creating a food security risk. We need to adopt new technologies, of which GM is one, if we are to combat this.
Already great progress has been made on productivity – "between 1967 and 2007 world food production increased by 115 per cent but land use only increased by eight per cent." The suggestion of a choice between greater food production or protecting the enviromenet was a "false premise." We mist do both and GM is helping.
GM is extending a principle that is tried and tested:
We have been adapting genetics through plant breeding for centuries. Recent advances such as the sequencing of the wheat genome by UK scientists and the development of “superwheat” over at NIAB in Cambridge show what can be done with conventional cross-breeding. But we’ll need to use all available tools if we are to address the serious challenges we face.
Used properly, the advanced plant-breeding technique of 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.
This could help the environment by releasing land:
Even more excitingly, if we use cultivated land more efficiently, we could free up space for biodiversity, nature and wilderness. Something I know a number of commentators have been calling for. Research undertaken by a team at Rockefeller University has found that over the course of the next 50 years new technology, combined with improved agricultural practices across the world, could release an area 2.5 times the size of France from cultivation.
The caution in Europe contrasted with the global position. Since 1996 there has been a 100-fold increase in the global use of GM. It was now used on 12 per cent of all arable land – "an area around seven times the size of the United Kingdom.
Mr Paterson felt that in itself was a vindication:
Farmers wouldn’t grow these crops if they didn’t benefit from doing so.
Governments wouldn’t licence these technologies if they didn’t recognise the economic, environmental and public benefits.
Consumers wouldn’t buy these products if they didn’t think they were safe and cost effective.
Yet at present Europe "is missing out." Less than 0.1% of global GM cultivation occurred in the EU.
GM offers farmers "easier, quicker and cheaper control over pests or weeds." The Brazilian Agriculture Minister has told Mr Paterson "that GM soya is 30 per cent more cost effective than conventional soya. Soya is a key protein source for our livestock. It’s an integral part of the global food system." GM cotton is "a real success story." More than two-thirds of global cotton production is now GM-based, so most of us are wearing clothes made from GM crops. But protecting against pests this not only increases yields but "there are environmental benefits through reduced insecticide use.
The total annual cost to the UK of controlling this potato blight is around £60 million "and even then crops can still be affected."
While being pest resistant the GM crops also cope better with the weather:
As well as drought-tolerance, scientists are also exploring the possible development of other GM crops which are flood-tolerant, salt-tolerant or resistant to extreme temperature fluctuations. All of these promise to allow agricultural production on land previously considered marginal.
Theer are also the health benefits of GM to consider. Golden Rice was invented to tackle vitamin A deficiency, "the leading cause of irreversible blindness in children.":
None of the existing varieties of rice contains vitamin A. Golden Rice was only possible as a result of genetic engineering. We should all reflect on the fact that it is 15 years since it was developed and attempts to deploy it have been thwarted. This is despite the seeds being offered for free to those who need them most. In that time, more than seven million children gone blind or died.
But is GM safe?
Over the past 25 years the EU alone has funded more than 50 projects on GM safety involving more than 400 independent research groups at a cost of around £260 million. Summary reports produced by the European Commission in 2000 and in 2010 reached two powerful conclusions:
First, there was no scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms.
Second, the use of more precise technology and the greater regulatory scrutiny probably makes GMOs even safer than conventional plants and food.
Mr Paterson stressed that consumers must have a choice and thatthere should be transparency in supermarkets. He accepted that segregation of crops had to be taken seriously – although he said this was already achieved in other respects.
Yet this was a brave speech, seeking to lead rather than follow public opinion. This is a man on a mission.