By Louise Gray
British farmers must cultivate a new generation of genetically modified (GM) “supercrops” to prevent a global food crisis, the UK’s leading scientists have said.
In the most comprehensive report on the future of British agriculture in a generation, the Royal Society warned that millions of people face starvation in coming decades because of population growth and climate change.
The report called for a “new revolution in agriculture” that brings together traditional techniques such as crop rotation with the latest advancements in science.
Fears over “Frankenstein foods” must be overcome because GM crops will be essential to meeting the demands of a changing world, the report argued.
Within 20 years scientists in the UK should be leading the world by developing the “super crops” of the future such as plants that can “self fertilise”, drought resistant breeds and “super efficient” plants that can photosynthesise more effectively.
Sir David Baulcombe, Professor of Botany at University of Cambridge, who chaired the study, said the UK has a responsibility to lead the world in the latest research.
“We need to take action now to stave off food shortages. If we wait even five to ten years, it may be too late,” he said. “Biological science has progressed in leaps and bounds in the last decade and UK scientists have been at the head of the pack when it comes to topics related to food crops. In the UK we have the potential to come up with viable scientific solutions for feeding a growing population and we have a responsibility to realise this potential. There’s a very clear need for policy action and publicly-funded science to make sure this happens.”
In the past, growing GM in Britain has proved controversial with trials being vandalised.
But in the future Prof Baulcombe said scientists will need to not only trial crops in the UK but overcome opposition from environmental campaigners to get the latest approved varieties out of the laboratory and into farmers’ fields.
“Crops cannot be grown behind barbed wire they need to be grown in open fields,” he said.
But Kirtana Chandrasekaran, Friends of the Earth’s food campaigner, accused the scientists of trying to “sneak in” GM rather than considering more established science such as plant breeding.
“It is very dangerous for them to to be saying biotechnology is a way to the future,” she said.
Hilary Benn, the Environment Secretary, welcomed the report.
“The twin challenges of climate change and a growing global population mean that all over the world more food needs to be produced, using less natural resources and while being resilient to changing conditions. Science will be crucial to achieving that,” he said.