UK Govt’s science chief goes out to bat for GM crops to help feed the world

The British Government’s new chief scientific adviser, Sir Mark Walport, says the case for genetically modified (GM) food is getting stronger because of its importance as a tool to feed a growing global population.

One month into his new job, Sir Mark has said he will aim to offer ministers the best and most accurate advice on all aspects of science policy, including the introduction of GM crops.

The Independent reports on what he said here.

“The issue is European regulation, which is that Europe grows remarkably little genetically modified crops so I don’t think this is something that is going to change overnight,” Sir Mark said.

“But I think it is inexorably rising up the agenda again because as a technology it is showing its value more and more obviously in terms of the crops that are able to feed the world,” he said.

Public opposition to GM food in Britain, and the reluctance of supermarkets to stock it, has hindered the kind of wide-scale farming of genetically engineered crops seen in other parts of the world, notably North and South America.

Sir Mark questioned whether the majority of the public are as opposed to the technology as some GM critics have argued. He also said GM crops should be considered on a case-by-case basis.

“For every genetic modification you have to ask: what plant, what gene and for what purpose? The case will be strong for some and not strong for others. Each case has to be decided on its merits,” Sir Mark said.

“If it were possible for instance to develop a blight-resistant potato then that would be a valuable thing to do,” he said referring to a GM potato variety that is resistant to the fungal pest.

“I think the job of a scientific adviser is to set out the scientific case and that scientific case [for GM] it becoming stronger and stronger and stronger. But ultimately I’m very clear that my job is to advise on the science and it is then the politician’s job to decide how to use that. The final decision is a political decision,” Sir Mark said.

A two-year trial of a GM variety of aphid-resistant wheat is under way at Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, Hertfordshire.

Sir Mark said it was unfortunate a large part of the trial’s costs were being spent on security to prevent the field being destroyed by anti-GM campaigners.

Sir Mark was formerly head of the Wellcome Trust, Britain’s largest medical research charity.

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