The Nuffield Council on Bioethics argues that GM crops could significantly improve agriculture in developing countries but it warns against considering GM technology in isolation.
"The possible costs, benefits and risks associated with particular GM crops must be assessed on a case by case basis," said Dr Sandy Thomas, director of the Nuffield Council and who recently launched a discussion paper on the subject.
"We recommend asking how the use of a GM crop compares to alternatives," continued Dr Thomas. It is essential to focus on the specific situation in a particular country, and to compare all possible options. This comparison should include not only other approaches in agricultural research and practice, but also the potential cost of doing nothing, the council added.
The position from the council will go some way to redressing the balance that sees the anti-GM food stance largely outweighing the pro side in the debate on GM technology. In Britain, and Europe as a whole, the general consensus from the consumer is one of extreme reticence towards GM foods.
But akin with many other passionate debates, the issue is far from black and white. As confirmed by the council that reported when it held a consultation this summer on the issue the responses received at the time highlighted the complexity of the debate.
'While many respondents described the benefits they had experienced from GM crops, others argued that economic, political or social change was more important than new technologies,' said the bioethic group in a statement last week.
Emphasising further that the issue is far from clear cut, Dr Thomas added: "We recognise that we are discussing only part of a much larger picture. We do not claim that GM crops will feed the world but we do believe that, in specific cases, they could make a useful contribution to improving the livelihood of poor farmers in developing countries."
The council maintains that GM crops could be used to address agricultural problems, such as drought and salty soils, where other methods of plant breeding or conventional agriculture have been less successful.
GM crops could also address some health problems. For example, Golden Rice, modified to produce beta-carotene, could help to prevent vitamin A deficiency. However, in other situations, the use of a GM crop may be less appropriate. GM herbicide resistant crops may lead to reduced demand for labour, which could hinder the reduction of poverty in developing countries, added the group.
Taking a mild swipe at the current use of GM technology, and research, to benefit large-scale farmers the council claimed that research into GM crops 'must be directed towards the needs of small-scale farmers in developing countries', with financing provided by the UK government, the European Commission plus other national governments.
The debate continues.