GM inaction costing lives says expert

The refusal to accept GM technologies was costing lives, claimed former top-government scientist Sir David King last night.

Speaking at the annual City Food Lecture in London, Sir David highlighted the natural development of cross breeding rice strains to create flood resistant rice in India, which took more than 10 years to develop.

"We could do the same thing with genetic splicing and get there in just two years," he said.

"And I would say a very large number of people have lost their lives because of the unavailability of flood resistant rice.

He said the technology was not being used by farmers in developing countries like India, mainly because they had picked up on European resistance to the technology, so it takes "five to ten times" as long to develop products like the rice.

"How many people have suffered from GM food stuffs, and now consider how many have suffered from lack of them."

He said there needed to be a change in political attitudes and if the world was to tackle the issue of feeding 9 billion people, it needed to embrace all the technology at its disposal, as long as that was backed by strong regulatory control.

"We need to be a little bit smarter about this. We need to be creating saline resistant crops as well as flood and disease resistant varieties. There's a desperate need for bio-technology if we're to manage that 50% increase in demand. I don't think the developing world can wait, why not use these technologies."

However, fellow panellist Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, dismissed Sir David's comments. "I strongly disagree about the use of GM. I find it very encouraging to see new varieties can be developed using natural methods. How many people have been hurt by GM? We don't know because research and trials haven't been done."

He added that in light of the problems facing the world in terms of food security it was "dangerous" to be distracted too much by a narrow debate on whether we should use GM products or not. "So far, we haven't seen any benefits from GM crops, if anything, they've led to an increase in pesticide use."