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There's no choice: we must grow GM crops now

Observer editorial

Feeding the swelling numbers of people on our planet is one of the most serious challenges facing our leaders today. By 2050, it is likely Earth's population will have reached 9 billion. Finding food for such numbers will not be easy. Science will not solve the problem on its own, of course, but clearly it has a key role to play. Without new technologies, future generations will starve. It is as straightforward as that.

To help pinpoint the most promising of these new technologies, politicians need to encourage new food-related research by creating a bureaucratic environment in which the best approaches can be evaluated speedily and effectively. The problem is that such a regime does not exist in the UK, or in Europe. This state of affairs is of particular concern for it is hampering the introduction of the most promising of all agricultural technologies, genetically modified crops. At present, only one GM crop is grown commercially in Europe – a type of GM maize grown mostly in Spain. EU red tape has blocked the introduction of all others despite the fact that many offer rich environmental and nutritional rewards compared with the growing of conventionally bred varieties.

The situation is unacceptable, a point that was stressed last week by a group of government science advisers who warned that European rules covering the growing of GM crops are no longer fit for purpose. They urged that Britain should be allowed to decide for itself whether genetically modified crops should be grown in the UK. The many benefits to be gained, in terms of sustainable food production, far outweigh any perceived dangers, stated the report to the Council for Science and Technology (CST), which advises David Cameron on scientific developments. It called for the wholesale reorganisation of the way that the crops are assessed by regulators. If this does not happen, then Britain and Europe are likely to fall behind other parts of the world where GM crops have been embraced, in particular the US.

The report, prepared by leading UK plant researchers, is to be warmly welcomed. It is now 30 years since GM crops were first developed and their introduction debated in this country. The science has matured since then but campaigners' responses to it have not. Scientific ignorance and bureaucratic inertia continue to hold the upper hand and over the decades have blocked the introduction of a swath of promising projects: plants that can boost vitamin levels in our food, that can reduce farmers' reliance on pesticides, and that can increase yields for three decades. To repeat the point: this situation is unacceptable.

We have a great deal to gain from growing GM crops. They offer humanity a way to improve food productivity without having to make further inroads into our planet's wild places to create more fields for farmers. The position was summed up by Sir Mark Wolpert, the government chief scientist last week, when debating the CST's report. "The challenge is to get more from existing land in a sustainable way or face the alternative, which is that people will go unfed, or we'll have to bring more wilderness land into cultivation." From that perspective, the case for GM crops is unanswerable.

Not everyone will agree, of course. Green opponents to GM crops claim they pose a risk to health, though no research has ever produced any credible evidence to back this point. Thirty years ago, it could be argued that we should proceed cautiously because of potential health dangers. That argument is no longer acceptable.

Others say the report's authors, who were led by Sir David Baulcombe, of the University of Cambridge, had "hidden" links with industry. This is simply not so. All links between the authors and agricultural industry were announced at the press conference at the Science Media Centre where the report was launched last week. Most observers considered those links to be modest and uncompromising.

Other green activists argue that GM crops are tainted because of their connections with big business. But, as Mark Lynas, the former anti-GM campaigner who now endorses genetically modified crops, has pointed out, this state of affairs has arisen as a direct consequence of the campaigners' own behaviour. Their activities – invading farms and ripping up GM crop trials – have sent crop development costs soaring so that only major companies can now afford them. As Lynas puts it: "The anti-biotech campaigners complain about GM crops only being marketed by big corporations when this is a situation they have done more than anyone to help bring about."

It is worth contrasting this behaviour with the kind of science that is now being produced by GM crop researchers. Consider the Rothamsted research station in Hertfordshire, where scientists have engineered a strain of wheat that emits a chemical called E-beta-farnesene, which is also given off by aphids when they are threatened. In effect, it tells other aphids to fly away. For good measure, E-beta-farnesene also attracts aphid predators such as ladybirds and wasps.

In short, it delivers a double whammy – and one with rich potential. Aphids cause an estimated £100m of damage to crops every year in the UK alone. However, the effectiveness of Rothamsted's anti-aphid GM wheat has been demonstrated only in the laboratory so far. Two years ago, field trials were prepared but were threatened by anti-GM campaigners. Fortunately, their protest fizzled out – a sign that such activities may be losing their appeal and their momentum. If so, we should feel encouraged.

The world is going to find itself under massive strain to provide water, energy and food for its people. Already, almost a billion people are suffering from serious food shortages and face starvation and in the next couple of decades there will be a worsening of that problem unless we take effective action now.

To do that, we need to deploy the very best, most productive technologies that are available – and given that the genetic modification of crops is probably the most powerful of all such techniques, it is clear Britain needs to act now to smooth the path for its deployment. After 30 years, it is time to take GM crops to the nation.