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Royal Society Report Backs GM Crops, Other Measures to Boost Food Production

21 October 2009 5:24 am
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LONDON—A call for more money for agricultural science and greater attention to soil management and irrigation schemes? With recommendations such as those in a new report on how to address the world's growing demand for food, it’s not a complete surprise that most of the press attending a briefing yesterday at the U.K.’s Royal Society quickly turned their attention to the report’s embrace of genetically modified (GM) crops, an ongoing source of controversy here. "No technology should be ruled out," says David Baulcombe, the University of Cambridge plant biologist and Royal Society Fellow who chaired the study.

In its primary recommendation, the report calls on the U.K. to inject an extra £50 million to £100 million annually over the next decade into agricultural research that could help boost the world's food production by 50% by 2050. Baulcombe notes that he and his co-authors reviewed analyses conducted by others and concluded that food production would need to rise between 25% and 100% over the coming decades. They reject the notion that simply reducing waste and improving distribution can solve future food shortages. “Yes, we do need more food,” Baulcombe says. “We can’t sit back and rely on what we've got.”

At the briefing, Baulcombe tried to keep the focus on the report’s call for developing crop management techniques that are more efficient and sustainable. He, for example, highlighted a “push-pull” strategy of pest management used to grow maize in Africa. In this scheme, maize is surrounded by a border of grass that is intended to lure destructive moths to lay their eggs away from the crop, and another crop that the moths dislike is interspersed among the maize. “By growing different plants together, one can grow the crops sustainably,” says Baulcombe.

But stoked by an inflammatory Daily Telegraph story earlier this week previewing the report (“Britain will starve without GM crops, says major report”), the reporters at the briefing showed little interest in such matters and zeroed in on the panel’s call for “genetic improvement” of crops, through conventional plant breeding and, more controversially, direct modification of crop genomes.

The U.K., like many European countries, has largely resisted the introduction of GM food crops, although there is no Europe-wide ban on their sale and there is a process for their approval. At the briefing yesterday, Baulcombe and his co-authors struggled to move the discussion beyond the GM food issue, even as they clearly made the case that such crops must be one element of future food production. They acknowledged the public resistance to GM crops so far but argued that much of it stemmed from the fact that current GM crops were largely developed by multinational companies and are designed to tolerate the pesticides and herbicides those companies sell.

Baulcombe stresses that the next generation of GM crops will benefit from scientists having access to the deciphered genomes of plants, which should allow modifications that increase yields—or allow current yields to be maintained with less damage to the environment. The report cites as goals developing nitrogen-fixing cereal crops that would need less fertilizer and creating crops with improved photosynthetic efficiency. “There’s a tremendous opportunity to apply science to productive, sustainable agriculture,” says Baulcombe. “But there’s an element of urgency in what we’re talking about. We need to start doing the research now.”

However, as several journalists noted in their questioning yesterday, the report makes no specific recommendations on safeguarding the ability of U.K. scientists to conduct GM crop research. Anti-GM forces in the U.K. have successfully destroyed many field trials of such crops, leading some scientists to abandon such research and others to call for the U.K. government to conduct trials at secure or secret sites.

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