Billions of mouths to feed but is GM the answer?

An essential ingredient in the battle to feed the world or an unacceptable risk to mankind? The great GM debate goes on. Reporter Sophie Wyllie investigates the arguments for and against the technology which has been described as 'win-win' by a top Norwich scientist.

It is 12 years since 28 Greenpeace protesters stormed a Norfolk farm and destroyed genetically-modified (GM) crops, but the issue continues to be a contentious subject, according to professor Giles Oldroyd, from the John Innes Centre in Norwich.

On July 26 1999, at 5am, the activists damaged maize which was being grown as part of a four-year GM trial at Walnut Tree Farm at Lyng, near Dereham, by William Brigham.

Mr Brigham still owns the family farm and said he would grow GM crops tomorrow if he could. He added: 'I'm absolutely behind science... I would say to people who oppose GM they need to wake up to the fact that if they keep rubbishing the work scientists do we will find ourselves in trouble, because we need to increase food production.'

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The 28 Greenpeace protesters, who included the then executive director of Greenpeace, Lord Melchett from Ringstead, near Hunstanton, went to trial at Norwich Crown Court.

After a retrial in 2000 at the same court a jury found the protesters not guilty of criminal damage.

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Prof Oldroyd, associate research director at John Innes Centre, at Colney near Norwich, said: 'We have got the point where we have 7bn people on the planet and we are not going to stabilise that number now. We are reaching the point where our agricultural systems are not able to sustain production and we need to find new ways to make food. GM is a good way of making sustainable, yielding crops. Research shows it is not hazardous.'

He said a recent European Union report looked at tests carried out over 25 years by hundreds of scientists from institutions including the National Academy of Sciences, a partnership between British and American scientists, and the Royal Society, the oldest scientific academy in existence.

The John Innes Centre also published its own research two years ago into GM food technology, which had taken five years to complete.

Talking about the benefits of GM technology, Prof Oldroyd added: 'The potential for reducing agricultural disease is immense and it will also increase yield. It is a win-win situation and to not use it would be both detrimental the environment and the world's population.'

He compared members of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including Greenpeace, the Soil Association and Friends of the Earth, to global warming sceptics.

'GM technology is safe and they (the NGOs) are holding up progress. If we continue down this line the result will be more people starving in a developing world and moving crop production on to arable land. Neither of these are desirable,' prof Oldroyd added.

Jennifer Parkhouse, co-ordinator for the Norwich and Norfolk Friends of the Earth, said: 'It is a massive waste of time and investment in a technology, which could be better used. We are not against genetic engineering but we feel the genetic modification of food is the wrong way to go. Billions of pounds is being invested in this technology.'

She said that scientists have 'hoodwinked' people about GM food, which has created a 'lose-lose situation'.

'It is fine for research to be carried out in a lab but not for GM food to be release into the fields and the environment,' Ms Parkhouse added.

GM technology works by moving specific genes from one crop to another, which would not normally contain these genes.

Last year the EDP reported on the creation of a deep purple tomato developed at the John Innes Centre, which used genes from a snapdragon plant.

The new crop had anti-carcinogenic properties but could not go to market because of European Union legislation, which dictates that GM products cannot be sold to the public until after 15 years of tests.

Currently there are GM wheat trials at Rothamsted Research, in Hertfordshire, which started this year and aims to reduce the amount of insect damage and the amount of pesticides used on the cereal crop.

The John Innes Centre is also in its second year of a three-year GM potato trial on preventing potato blight, treated by fungicides.

It is estimated that 13 million tonnes of the vegetable are lost to blight around the world costing growers some �2bn a year.

Prof Oldroyd said that GM technology was relevant to his research at the John Innes Centre and the scientific base aims to carry on working with GM technology, as well as more traditional crossbreeding methods between plants and crops.

Richard Hirst, a farmer from Ormesby, near Great Yarmouth, said: 'We need to make use of every modern technology available to us. At the moment farming is being used to deliver 21st century solutions but with 19th century technology. We have got the challenge of more people and less land to grow crops on. There are millions of hectares of GM crops being grown around the world already - why shouldn't it happen in Europe.'

America currently grows GM sweetcorn, and about four-fifths of cotton is also produced through the new technology.

Mr Hirst, who grows sugar beet, wheat and barley, among other crops, added that GM crops needed to be grown and controlled in a safe way.

'The rest of the world has used Wi-fi and other technologies and they could be just as damaging as GM. I don't understand why people get so worried about GM technology,' he said.

But Lord Melchett, a former government minister and current policy director for the Soil Association, insisted that GM crop breeding is uncertain, unreliable and risky.

He said: 'There are much better and newer ways of breeding crops which work and don't carry such a risk. Nobody has looked into the effects of GM food.'

Lord Melchett added that the Marker Assisted Selection method was better than GM technology. This process is a combination of traditional genetics and molecular biology, which selects traits of interest including colour and disease resistance.

'We have got enough food for everyone in the world to have a healthy diet. The problem isn't how much food but where it is and where people can buy it from. Hunger and starvation are caused by poverty and wars. There are more people suffering from obseity in the world than people suffering from starvation,' he said.

This view was shared by Ms Parkhouse, who added that research has shown that GM technology has not increased crop yield - an argument used by scientists.

If GM food technology became normal, every crop would have to be produced that way, according to Lord Melchett, who claimed that the amount of chemicals being used on GM crops in Canada and America had increased.

He said that research from more than 400 international scientists published between two to three years ago concluded that the best way to produce crops in the future was through agro-ecological systems - which had a low input and used organic methods.

Controls on GM food are at EU level – with competence shared between the European Commission, the European Food Safety Authority and member states.

In Britain, the Food Standards Agency, a non-ministerial government department, leads on the safety of GM food and animal feed, and on GM labelling issues.

The government's Department for Environmental, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) leads on the environmental safety of GM organisms as well as general policy on GM crops.

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