Genetically modified (GM) crops could help address spiralling prices, said UK ministers, sparking yet another European debate on their role in the global food arena.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown also called yesterday for the EU to relax regulations governing the import of genetically modified feed, which currently see all incoming shipments of feed undergoing strict testing, and any batches containing unapproved GM traces sent back.
Brown's support for the controversial GMOs came a day after the environment minister, Phil Woolas, reportedly held private talks with the Agricultural Biotechnology Council about increasing Britain's acceptance of GM crops.
The proposals have led to strong responses from both supporters and critics, igniting again a debate that has long been raging on the use of GM.
GM supporters argue higher yields and therefore greater profitability could help combat food prices, which have been on the rise over the past years.
However, green campaigners have expressed concerns that the long-term safety of GM crops has not been established. Additionally, they say there is no evidence suggesting GM can lead to increased production.
EU Council meeting
The UK has taken its support for GM to a two-day European Council meeting in Brussels, where discussions include how to combat the global food crisis.
During a session at the Commission yesterday, the questions arose of whether Europe should embrace GMOs to boost food production.
The answer was: "The use of GMO crops can increase productivity. This may be particularly important in regions of the world which suffer from difficult climatic conditions. GMOs can therefore play an important role in mitigating the effects of the food 'crisis'.
"However, the potential benefits of GMOs in this respect do not lessen the need to apply strict scientific scrutiny to the use of GMO technology."
A recent report by UK-based PG Economics called Global impact of biotech crops: socio-economic and environmental effects 1996-2006 said the present food supply crisis would be worse if it were not for commercial cultivation of GM crops over the last 12 years.
Global production of soybeans, corn, cotton and canola were respectively 5 per cent, 1.4 per cent, 5.2 per cent, and 0.5 per cent higher than they would have been if farmers were not using GM technology, said the report.
Nathalie Moll, executive director for EuropaBio, which represents the biotech industry, said the UK has always been very coherent and consistent in its decisions surrounding GM, and the group welcomed Brown's increased support.
"Our zero tolerance on feed shipments has led to shortages, which are devastating for Europe as it relies heavily on imports, and so requires a technical solution," she told FoodNavigator.com.
"Member states must also begin to comply with European regulations and speed up the decision process for products that are awaiting European approval."
Green groups' responses
Environmental groups fear the possible long term health risks and effects on the environment, with one of the main concerns being cross-contamination with conventional crops.
Friends of the Earth GM campaigner, Clare Oxborrow, said: "The Government has been seriously misled if it thinks that GM crops are going to help tackle the food crisis - GM crops do not increase yields or tackle hunger and poverty.
"Instead of helping the GM industry to use the food crisis for financial gain, the Government should be encouraging a radical shift towards sustainable farming systems that genuinely benefit local farmers, communities and the environment worldwide."
The group said a UK GM debate found that 85 per cent of the public is against the cultivation of GM crops in the country.
Peter Melchett, policy director at the Soil Association, has also expressed concerns about GM crops. He said: "The problem is this is an uncertain technology, which the scientists can't control.
"In controlled conditions, where GM organisms can't escape, it is a different matter. But if you put it in the environment GM can get into the soil. We don't even know enough about the soil to know the effect it may have."
World food prices have been steadily on the up due to poor harvests damaging stocks, rising energy costs, a growing population as well as rising living standards in countries such as China that translate to an increasing demand from emerging markets, and competition for grain for use as biofuels.
Food inflation is thought to be at 6 per cent now, while oil reached a record high this month of $139 a barrel. Meanwhile, wheat and maize prices have more than doubled since the end of 2005.