GM Science – in the service of man?

www.feedingtheworldconference.org

“Future foods: join the GM debate” – so the cry rang out from London’s Science Museum as it worked hard to assemble a public meeting (January 22nd 2008) to debate the issues raised in its temporary exhibition of the same name.

Despite fears from some observers that this debate and the accompanying exhibition were to be used to grace GM technology with phoney public endorsement, in reality it all turned out rather different. Whether your were pro, anti or agnostic on the issue of GM farming and food, there was little appetite from the panel of speakers, let alone from most contributors from the floor, for wholesale adoption of GM crops.

Defra chief scientific adviser Bob Watson stole the show with his blunt analysis of the real food and nutrition problems facing the world. The goal, he said, has to be how to feed 900 million hungry people in the developing world.

This is not a challenge for technology to solve alone; we need a pro-poor trade regime, we need real rural development; we must put farmers at the centre of the debate and pay them for global public goods as well as food production, said Bob Watson.

“We may need GM in the future, but at present it is an oversold technique, which needs examination on a case by case basis,” he concluded.

Professor Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University, was equally lukewarm about the prospects for GM crops to solve what he termed the new fundamentals of farming and food production. Any solution has to operate under and – even better – help to solve the global pressures on energy supply, soil quality, water availability, the carbon cycle. To Professor Lang the key GM policy and political issue is ownership of the technology and its control.

As the debate opened up to comment and questions from the floor it soon became apparent that the organisers – who had feared hectoring, unruly behaviour from an anti-GM “rabble” were in fact faced with irate researchers from such bodies as the John Innes Institute. Their degree of upset that society might wish to have a say on the direction that science is leading them was illuminating.

One such contributor asked why all the speakers were treating GM as a “generic science” with generic risk when each application was different and, in any case, merely mimicked “natural” processes. (All the speakers had carefully talked of “case by case” analysis).

Bob Watson’s reasoned answer was lost in a cacophony of interruption from other researchers, forcing him to describe their approach as rude and uncivilised. An early retreat to drinks and an interval in debate was hurriedly called before the honour of the scientific establishment could be tarnished further. Perhaps they do debate differently in Norwich?

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