Families face stark choice ... pay more for food or go GM
CONSUMER resistance to the idea of genetically modified foods must be overcome if there is be a solution to the growing problem of food inflation, scientists have said.
Horror stories about the dangers of so-called "Frankenstein foods" prompted a backlash in the UK against the use of more intensive farming technology.
But with the price of staple goods - including milk, cereals and vegetables - soaring well above inflation, a growing number of experts are concluding that consumers will soon have to choose between expensive food and cheaper GM.
Economists say climate change and growing global demand could leave Britain facing a "food-security" crisis for the first time since the end of rationing in July 1954.
Scientists are now calling for a fresh debate about GM crops, which they claim will reduce prices and mitigate the impact of farming on the world's environment.
Although unnoticed by many shoppers, food prices are rising faster in Britain than almost anywhere else in the Western world. Bread, for example, is up 15 per cent and milk up 10 per cent.
A COMBINATION of poor harvests - as a result of severe weather brought on by global warming - and demand for crops which can be used as biofuels, have led to rising commodity prices in a phenomenon that analysts have dubbed "agflation".
Yesterday, the National Farmers' Union warned that the cheap-food era will soon end.
At present, millions of acres of commercial GM crops are grown in US, India and China and elsewhere, but there are none in Europe.
Alex Salmond, the First Minister, has pledged that Scotland will remain free from GM crops, but food containing GM ingredients is available - provided that it is labelled as such.
However, some experts believe Scotland must reconsider its position on GM crops if prices are to stay low and food remain in plentiful supply.
Dr Simon Best, chairman of the Bioindustry Association, said: "We have got used to the luxury of low food prices but excessive demand and climate change will prompt many people to rethink their priorities as shopping baskets become more expensive.
"Organic farming requires four times as much land-use. It is an extensive method of agriculture, rather than intensive. Acceptance of biotechnologies will allow us to develop cheaper and better food and mitigate our environmental impact."
Professor Bill McKelvey, chief executive of the Scottish Agricultural College, said: "Food prices are going to go up and there is going to be a greater need for high production. One option for us is that we should consider the use of GM."
The issue of GM foods has polarised opinion in recent years. Advocates claim it will enable farmers to gain higher crop yields through better weed control and reduce the use of toxic pesticides.
Poor countries, they say, will be less reliant on hand-outs, the nutritional content of basic foods can be improved and vaccines to fight disease can all be added to GM crops. In essence, they claim it is the answer to the growing problem of feeding the world.
BUT critics, such as Friends of the Earth Scotland, believe the large-scale release of GM organisms into the environment would irreversibly damage the countryside, eliminating diversity and turning it into a green monoculture.
They claim it may cause damage to human health, contribute to the evolution of pesticide-resistant "superweeds", and make organic farming impossible because of cross-pollination.
In 2003, several sites in Scotland ran trials of GM crops, which attracted mass protests and the destruction of plants. There are no longer any GM crops in Scotland, though trials with GM potatoes are taking place in England.
Keith Adamson, a farmer at Wester Friarton, Newport-on-Tay, Fife, was involved in Scottish trials of GM crops and saw protesters attacking his field of GM oil-seed rape.
Despite this, Mr Adamson believed the UK could not continue to shun the technology.
"That is going to hurt a lot of people... GM will be needed to feed the growing world population," he said.
"GM crops may be seen as the monster at the moment, but I think in the future it will be our godsend."
THE Scottish Executive has stated its clear opposition to GM crops,
but Anthony Trewavas, a professor of plant science and fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, who gave evidence on the GM debate at a committee of the Scottish Parliament, insists the products have been eaten by Americans and Canadians for over a decade without any evidence of harmful effects.
"If there is the political will to use GM products, we can go some way to solve the problem of starvation," he said. "Animal feed has come from GM products for a long time. The stuff is cheaper because of the reduction in the use of pesticides.
"The Executive's intention is to be GM-free and that's a mistake. You should not stop people making that choice."
Dr Best added that technology was already being used to extend the season of fruit and vegetables and improve the quality of meat.
"Techniques such as selective breeding and reproductive assistance are already in widespread use. Organic farming doesn't mean animals are roaming around having sex when they feel like it.
"GM crops and cloning get a negative reaction among many consumers because Europe was never allowed to have a rational debate about the potential benefits. It is now time we had that debate."
An Executive spokeswoman said: "GM crops are not grown in Scotland and we believe this respects the wishes of Scottish consumers who want local, high-quality produce. It helps Scottish farmers compete in overseas markets which place a premium on pure, naturally produced food, and it enhances Scotland's international reputation for the production of high-quality foodstuffs.
"Scotland has a wonderful and varied environment, which is rich in biodiversity, and our farmers have a long history of working with the land to produce quality crops and products that people want to buy. We do not wish to jeopardise this."
Crisis alert as impact of rising farm prices felt at checkout
MOST consumers in Britain probably have not noticed the increase in their weekly shopping bills, but the
price of cereals in the UK has jumped by 12 per cent in the past year and butter prices in Europe have increased 40 per cent.
Corn has doubled in price over the past 18 months, wheat prices have gained about 50 per cent, while sugar and cocoa prices are also on the up.
Analysts with Deloitte last week warned bread would go up by a further 5p a loaf because of rising wheat prices.
Sixty years ago, the average British family spent more than a third of its income on food - today the figure is a tenth. But for the first time in a generation, agricultural commodity prices are surging.
Nestle's chairman, Peter Brabeck, has warned that food prices around the world are set for a "significant and long-lasting" period of inflation, partly because of demand from China and India, and the increasing use of crops for biofuels, as well as general population growth.
This week the UN warned that rising prices for food would affect its ability to fight famine in Africa.
A report by the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organisation and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, stressed that long-term prices would be up to 30 per cent higher than expected.
"Growth in the use of agricultural commodities as feedstock to a rapidly increasing biofuel industry is one of the main... reasons for international commodity prices to attain a significantly higher plateau," the report said.
The warning is likely to re-ignite the debate on food versus fuel. Under America's "ethanol policy", a quarter of US maize is converted into bio-fuels. As the US supplies more than two-thirds of the world's grain imports, the effect on food prices will be dramatic.
James Withers, deputy chief executive of the NFU Scotland, said consumers can no longer take food production for granted. "For the first time since the end of the Second World War, food security has been an issue again," he said.
"Food has been artificially cheap for a long time and we have expected to walk into Tesco and see the aisles fully stocked with food.
"The government has no food security policy and believes the rest of the world will feed the UK and that's not true. If you don't keep Scottish food production going... you could have a real food security crisis."
He cited the example of Argentina, which last year dramatically reduced beef exports, hitting world meat prices. Last month, thousands of Mexicans took to the streets to protest at the price of corn flour to make tortillas, which had risen by 400 per cent.
David Hughes, emeritus professor of food marketing at Imperial College London, commented:
"For some people on low incomes, if the price of food continues to increase... they will be hard hit.
He also believes that, as a nation, we will be forced to look closer to home to feed ourselves because the variety of produce will not be what we have come to expect.
He said: "Would we run out of food? No. We'd just have to adapt... eat more potatoes, more local, home-grown food. We'd have to look at more seasonal foods and totally re-think the way we eat."
Dogged by protests from beginning
GM TRIALS were first announced in Scotland in 2002.
The testing prompted furious debate in the media and when the trials began, protesters descended on Munlochy, on the Black Isle, Ross-shire, one of 60 test sites in Britain.
The campaign attracted a "rainbow alliance" of demonstrators, who took a range of actions from blocking tractors sowing GM oilseed rape to lobbying parliament and MSPs.
Other protests that took place in Scotland included those at Daviot in Aberdeenshire and Newport-on-Tay.
In December 2002, protesters said they had been vindicated, when evidence from a six-year government research programme into the official trials showed for the first time in Britain that genes from engineered GM crops were interbreeding on a large scale with other crops and weeds.
Doctors from the British Medical Association suggested a GM ban to the Scottish Parliament.
The tests were later abandoned.
Controversial science at cutting edge
GM FOOD involves altering the genes of a plant, animal or micro-organism, or adding a gene from another living thing.
The ultimate aim of GM is to create better, more successful crops, and tackle issues such as pesticide use and falling food supplies.
Using genetic modification, genes can be switched on or off to change the way a plant or animal develops.
It can be used to reduce the amount of pesticide farmers have to use by altering a plant's DNA so it can resist the insects that attack it.
Genetic modification can give plants immunity to viruses, making crops less likely to fail and boosting yields. It can also improve their nutritional value.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) said:
"No-one has ever been reported as suffering from illness because the food they had eaten had been genetically modified."
Despite this, the UK has resisted involvement in commercial GM crops.
Anti-GM campaigners have expressed concerns about GM cross-pollination, claiming it could make organic farming impossible.
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