World needs GM crops argues Prof Sir John Beddington

After a weekend where anti GM protesters attempted to destroy a trial plot of wheat, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser said it made no sense to do so when the environmental benefits from the trial could be vast.

After a weekend where anti GM protesters attempted to destroy a trial plot of wheat, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser said it made no sense to do so when the environmental benefits from the trial could be vast.

Speaking in Edinburgh, Professor Sir John Beddington said he believed there was a different climate in the country now. When GM trials were started in the UK more than a decade ago, food prices were low and the trials were linked to one company getting an economic benefit from the work.

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The trials that are now being conducted at Rothamsted are testing a variety of wheat with a resistance to aphid attack. If this is successful it could help resolve the current “real issues with the use of pesticides” in aphid.

The benefits from the experiment would be in the public domain and not the property of any one business, he added.

He was in no doubt that the project would go ahead. “The proper processes have been gone through in terms of assessing its safety,” he said. “It has been licensed by Defra. The attempted disruption did not happen and neither should it.”

He contrasted the world wide acceptance of GM technology and the food it produced with the reluctance to take it on in this country and said he believed that if there was to be any serious attempt to increase food production in a sustainable way then GM would have to be a part of that.

He received support from an unexpected quarter, with Dr Ruediger Schiestza, a director with crop protection giant, Bayer CropScience, stating categorically that his company believed in gene modification. He regretted the negative views on GM within Europe and said he believed it could take up to five years to changes current attitudes.

“Europe does not take new technology well, whether it is nano technology, nuclear power or genetic modification but that is the way the world has to go if we are to feed millions more with finite natural resources,” he said.

His company, the second-biggest crop protection company in the world, has an annual research and development spend of €720 million (£575m) and the biotechnology part of that cash would be increased in the future, he indicated.

Both speakers were addressing the World Potato Congress, where Beddington also said he believed the potato crop had enormous potential to help feed the additional billions of people expected to populate the world in the coming decades.

However, if it was to do so, it would have to cope with the challenges of reduced land and water availability as well as more erratic weather patterns.

It would have to adopt GM technology to help deal with major diseases such as late blight which is estimated to cost some $10 billion (£6.3bn) annually in lost production. A potato variety with blight resistance would provide the double benefit of less yield loss and no pesticides being used to control the bacterial disease.

Currently some 300 million tonnes of potatoes were produced annually globally, with China being far and away the biggest single producer with an annual output of more than 70 million tonnes compared with the UK with around 6 million tonnes.

However, Allan Stevenson, the East Lothian farmer who chairs the Potato Council, said the UK had led the way in increasing potato yields while reducing the acreage committed to growing the crop.

But, as he told the 800 delegates from more than 50 countries, the UK was as vulnerable to climate change as any other part of the world.

He referred to “the wettest drought in history” which has produced extreme challenges for planting the 2012 UK crop.