Britain Should Lead the Way in GM Research

The Times
January 7, 2010

By Clive Aslet

The other day I received a message from the Prince of Wales. He objected to a comment I had made about GM crops, when I called his stance bonkers.

I am sorry, Sir, but I have to repeat it. You're off your trolley. So are the newspapers who trumpet the supposed evils of "Frankenstein foods", not to mention the green fascists who disrupt crop trials. The United States has had GM for a decade. It is a highly litigious society. How many cases have there been, seeking compensation as a result of having eaten a GM product? None. Australia rubs along with them; so does most of Asia and South America. China is hugely increasing its budget for agricultural research generally. Canny people, the Chinese; they can see what is on the horizon.

Only Europe puts its head in the sand, exposing to view the nether parts of a continent so rich that it assumes it will buy its way out of the food shortages threatening humanity in as little as 20 years' time.

Yesterday the Oxford Farming Conference heard a paper from the Government's chief scientific adviser, John Beddington. By 2030 the world will have had to increase food production by 50 per cent if it is to feed the 8.3 billion people who will then be on the planet. But the amount of farmland is decreasing because of urbanisation.

And don't talk about climate change: a 4C rise in average temperatures would turn many of the world's breadbaskets into ovens. We'll have less water, less fertiliser, less energy, more diseases in places we don't expect them. Going vegan - a ghastly prospect to those of us whom evolution bred to eat meat - might help, but then you would have to plough up the pasture that is at present used to graze cattle, releasing enormous amounts of stored CO2. Cue Private Frazer from Dad's Army: "We're all doomed."

But we needn't be. So far Malthus, who predicted that populations would necessarily be limited by the amount of food available, has been proved wrong. Successive generations of farmers have squeezed more out of their basic raw material: land. This will happen again, because it has to. The inevitable rise in food prices will be an incentive.

Drought-resistant crops, crops that yield more, despite the unpromising conditions in which they are grown, crops that do not succumb to pests and disease - Britain should lead the way in such developments. Research into the genome will deliver some benefits through conventional plant breeding. There must also be GM. It is gross selfishness to think otherwise.


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