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GM crops in spotlight in battle against hunger

Last week's Oxford Farming Conference pushed the GM (genetic modification) debate back into the headlines.

It first became a hot topic in the UK about 15 years ago when Tony Blair's government decided to make GM crops available to farmers. The PM soon backtracked on that decision in the wake of the public backlash against the technology.

The Scottish Government is resolutely against GM and refuses to allow any such crops to be planted on Scottish soil.

Despite that, public sentiment south of the Border is steadily shifting in favour of GM.

In August of last year, scientists at Norfolk's John Innes Centre announced they had successfully developed varieties of potato resistant to light blight – the deadly disease that caused the Irish potato famine – and that those GM potatoes remained healthy despite last summer being the worst for the disease in years.

In total, British growers spend an average of £60 million every year controlling blight that causes global losses of about £3.5 billion – so this development is a major breakthrough.

Protests last summer by anti-GM campaigners against a £1m, two-year-trial at Rothamsted in Hertfordshire to see whether GM wheat can deter aphids were quashed by police. Scientists now report early results from the trial are encouraging.

It's much the same around the world, with different countries developing GM crops from maize and soy bean, to fruit and vegetables, and cotton.

Owen Paterson, Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) Secretary explained to conference delegates how widespread the use of GM technology had become, telling them: "In 2011, 16 million farmers in 29 countries grew GM products on 160 million hectares. That's 11% of the world's arable land.

"To put it in context, that's six times larger than the surface area of the UK."

Perhaps my favourite quote from the conference on the subject came from environmental campaigner Mark Lynas who said: "You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food."

That came from a man who controversially changed from being a GM sceptic to a supporter after studying the science.

As opposition to GM retreats in the face of ever more leading scientists backing the technology, it's interesting to note that support for organic farming systems is also fading.

Most recent figures for organic production show most sectors have declined from their peak a few years ago, despite generous subsidies in the past to help farmers cope with the high costs of converting from conventional farming to organic.

There are currently not many more than 450 organic producers left in Scotland.

The problem is that consumers are being financially squeezed and are less inclined to pay premiums for organic food. Farmers, on the other hand, need premium prices to make up for the lower yields and extra costs of production, and in the absence of meaningful premiums are giving up and going back to conventional systems.

Perhaps the biggest constraint on the growth in demand for organic food is that report after report shows there is no difference nutritionally between it and conventionally produced food.

The concept of producing food organically is an attractive one until you study it in more depth. Yields are lower, but, more importantly, crop failures are more likely as a result of weeds, disease and pests in adverse growing season like last summer.

Up to half the world's productive arable land could be lost over the next 40 years due to the combined impact of rising temperatures, salinity and water scarcity. Coupled with the increasing frequency of heavy rain and flooding, farmers must be given innovative crop production tools, like GM varieties, to produce more food on less land.

There is now firm evidence to demonstrate the adoption of more intensive farming practices, including the responsible use of modern science, offers the most effective route to mitigate and cope with the effects of climate change.

If we can introduce new crops more resilient to water scarcity or wet conditions, we will at the same time contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions through the more efficient use of energy intensive inputs such as fertiliser.

Above all else, such technology should help us to banish hunger from a growing world population.

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