Speaking at the annual City Food Lecture, held in London, Leahy said: “In some ways it may have been a failure of us all actually to stand behind the science.
“You get a sense that whilst always the scientific evidence was clear, governments let alone retailers stopped short of wholehearted endorsing it and I think that that certainly didn’t help in the case of GM…”
He added that there also seemed to be a growing appreciation by people that GM was likely to play “a vital role in feeding the world, in adapting to climate change and indeed in producing some of these more nutritional products – foods - that people will need”.
Leahy said: “I get a sense that the science has moved on another notch and maybe there is an opportunity to discuss again these issues based on still clearer scientific evidence.”
Amid rising food insecurity where food manufacturers face volatile commodity prices and supply issues, GM crops have been promoted as a way of helping to ease a food crisis.
However, controversy over the benefits of genetic modification, and its ability to deliver on promises of enhanced yields and nutrition, continues.
Meanwhile green campaigners have expressed concerns that the long-term safety of GM crops has not been established and there is also the issue of winning consumers over.
The UK’s National Farmers Union president, Peter Kendall, who was also on the panel at the recent lecture, said: “As a farmer I need to be really confident that consumers want to buy the product I grow.”
He added that the concern for the farming industry was that strict rules for GM produce in Europe could give other countries where such products were freely available an advantage.
Kendall said: “We run a real risk of raising the bar here in Europe and actually exporting our industry to other parts of the world.”
He added that there was need for real scientific debate and not media the ‘scaremongering’ that has been seen.
Professor Lord Krebs, former chairman of the UK Food Standards Agency, who also joined the panel agreed and said: “To me the real moral tragedy of the whole GM debacle was not so much the impact on our food here in the UK, but the fact that the European prissiness about GM has affected its adoption in Africa.
“The tragedy in terms of human loss and starvation has been in Africa.
“I hope as we move forward, somehow European attitudes can change and so African attitudes will also change.”
Consumer acceptance of GM foods varies among countries with more positive attitudes found in the US, Canada and Japan than in Europe, according to a report from the Royal Society of Chemistry and Institution of Chemical Engineers published last month called: 'The vital ingredient: Chemical science and engineering for sustainable food”.
It said thatthe acceptance of GM crops had proved problematic in the UK and Europeand added: “The true benefits to all must be balanced against any potential risks through a better dialogue between consumers, the food industry and government.”
The City Food Lecture is organised by the seven City Livery Companies of bakers, butchers, cooks, farmers, fishmongers, fruiterers and poulters.