The spotlight has returned to the issue of genetically modified (GM) crops over the past weeks – this he weekend was no exception, with MidScotland and Fife MSP Murdo Fraser calling on GM crops to be used to feed people in Scotland.
Mr Fraser pointed to wet summers in 2011 and 2012, with resulting damage to crops, as a sign of things to come and warned that farmers needed all available tools to deal with an unpredictable situation. In some instances this will mean using GM crops, he said.
This brought an immediate response from Dr Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, who claimed introducing GM crops would destroy Scotland’s reputation as a quality food producer.
This is a view shared by the Scottish Government, which sees GM as a threat to Scotland’s rich environment and a risk to its reputation for producing high quality natural foods. Scotland’s image as a land of food and drink could be jeopardised.
The image of GM crops as “Frankenstein foods”, graphically promoted in the 1990s, continue to haunt the debate.
Recently, the UK Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, called on the European Union to relax strict restrictions on growing GM crops for consumption, and openly challenged some of the imagery of the past. And while his intervention put him at odds with the Scottish and Welsh governments, others were quick to support the call for a fresh debate on the issue.
It was welcomed by the NFU of England, and Dr Julian Little, chairman of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, who said it was “extremely encouraging” to again hear the government’s commitment to unlocking the potential of British agricultural science, and pushing the rest of Europe to follow a science-based approach to policy-making.
Scottish farming leaders have repeatedly supported the need for greater debate, highlighting the fact that, for instance, GM blight-resistant potatoes offer the chance to avoid 16 different spray applications, and that Scottish scientists should be allowed to develop GM crops.
The issue is clear: There is a role for scientists to help agriculture develop to meet the awesome challenges of the future, not least to feed a projected nine billion people worldwide by 2050, against a backdrop of pressure on natural resources, unpredictable weather patterns and the need to manage chemical inputs more carefully.
This challenge will require an imaginative and science-based assessment of whatever resources the industry can muster, as it will necessitate an unambiguous demarcation between non-GM and GM production systems to allow them to operate successfully together.
Much has happened since the 1990s. The world has changed and is changing. Fundamental shifts in diet, particularly in red meat consumption, are creating new pressures on historical production methods to such a degree that only radical thinking will help meet that challenge.
There is a strong case for a greater emphasis on explaining the environmental and consumer benefits. This point was made eloquently last year by scientists from Rothamsted Research in England, the longest-running agricultural research station in the world, when they came under fire from anti-GM protesters.
Future research should focus on optimising inputs – water, nutrients and pesticides – and delaying the effects of disease on crops. Ways have also to be found of enabling plants to make better use of sunlight.
Historically, agriculturalists have shown a proven capacity to adapt. The challenge is to ask what new technologies can do for Scotland.
Working in tandem, the farming industry and the scientific community have been able to deal with some daunting scenarios. Feeding the world is one of the great tasks for the future. It goes right to the core purpose of agriculture, and has a clear moral imperative.