David King

Many human lives have been lost due to the reluctance of some countries to accept genetically modified crops, former government chief scientific adviser, Sir David King has claimed.

Addressing the annual City Food Lecture in London’s Guildhall this week, Sir David cited the example of flood-resistant rice which had taken over five years to develop using conventional breeding techniques and genetic markers, when it could have been done in two using GM technology.

The drop in rice production in 2007, due to flooding just after planting, was a major factor behind the price hike in 2008 that led to food riots and starvation in some parts of the world, he said.

Yet the “submergence-tolerant” rice gene had been known about for years. Had gene-splicing been used to insert this into commercial varieties, it would have been available within two years.

But because of sensitivities about GM crops, the International Rice Research Institute had opted for conventional breeding, and the first commercial strains were only just becoming available.

“I suggest a large number of people have lost their lives because of the unavailability of this flood-resistant rice. It is a wonder to me that it is unacceptable for one rice gene to be transferred into another rice plant.”

Sir David said there was a “desperate need” for biotechnology if the world was to meet the challenge of raising food production 50% by 2030.

But this was rejected by Soil Association director Patrick Holden, who described the dominance of a small number of GM maize and soya varieties in North America as “dangerous”.

GM technology had not achieved significant yield gains and had, in some cases, led to increased pesticide use. “And we don’t know how many people have been damaged by GM foods, because the tests have never been done.”

Bovine TB

Dairy farming could be a thing of the past in Britain unless steps are taken to contain the spread of bovine TB by badgers, Sir David told the seminar.

TB was moving inexorably from west to east and many farmers were being forced out of business. “I wonder if Britain will still be a dairy-producing country if we continue with this problem.”

It was frustrating that the government was only culling cattle. “So long as we have a large residue of TB in the wild, I don’t belive the problem can be contained.”