Genetically Modified foods have polarised opinion in Britain since their creation, in some other countries they are widely accepted when a number of areas have imposed bans on their cultivation. Below are some of the issues about their use explained.
By Louise Gray, Environment Correspondent
Can we buy genetically modified crops on our supermarket shelves?
GM ingredients are already in food available on supermarket shelves, mostly in cooking oils containing GM soy or oilseed rape. However these will be labeled, according to EU law. Most supermarkets have banned GM ingredients in their own-brand products. In the world as a whole we have eaten two trillion meals containing GM over the last 12 years.
Most farm animals in Britain are fed GM soy and no supermarket can guarantee that dairy or meat they stock is not from animals fed GM.
Is GM being grown in Britain?
The only GM crop licensed for growing on a commercial scale in Europe is unsuitable for UK conditions and is grown in northern Spain. However other seeds are likely to come on the market soon. The most advanced GM crops that could be grown in Britain are GM potatoes and sugar beet, but these are yet to be licensed and commercial use is at least five years away. Scientists have been conducting two field trials under licence of GM crops in Norfolk and Yorkshire.
What are the benefits of GM crops?
Supporters say that we could develop crops that use less water and nutrients, are resistant to insects and produce higher yields. For western countries this could bring environmental benefits through lower pesticide use and water abstraction. In poorer countries it could help tackle starvation and improve the working conditions of farmers and labourers who would suffer less from pesticide contamination.
What are the disadvantages?
Opponents of GM say that the health effects are still unclear. They claim that sheep and goats are dying in India from eating genetically modified cotton. Critics reject claims of higher yields and say that the interests of big business are being put before health and environmental concerns. The potential for GM crops to contaminate organic farms, leading to loss of organic status, is also a huge worry.
What is the Government’s position?
It says its policy towards GM is “precautionary, evidence-based and sensitive to public concerns”.
It describes the technology as “not wholly good or bad” and promises to consider GM crops on a case by case basis, with the public the ultimate arbiters of whether GM products should succeed.
However in recent years, the position has been warming, as the public attitude softens towards GM and scientists call for a more open attitude to GM because of food shortages in other parts of the world and the need to grow crops in dry or difficult areas.
Every year more than 300 million acres of GM are planted every year around the world.