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August 16, 2011

'Britain's foreign aid could fund UK-based research on GM crops for drought-ridden Africa'

The UK government is increasing foreign aid payments but is this aid solving a problem or just prolonging it? Whilst some of the aid does go towards in-country projects, too often this does not deliver sustainable improvements, or worse, it lines the pockets of dictators. At the same time, cuts in government spending in agricultural research are now threatening our technology base.

"We should counter this by diverting some of our growing overseas aid payments into UK-based research towards developing GM crops resistant to drought, heat, pests and diseases," advises British Crop Production Council’s chairman, Dr Colin Ruscoe. "This would provide sustainable solutions in famine-prone parts of the world. At the same time, we can use these technology platforms to target key UK crops – wheat, potatoes and oilseed rape."

A recent statement of the UK Government’s policy on GM crops in England highlighted the benefits of GM technology in agriculture. This position is, among other things, based on the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) ruling which shows that there is "no scientific evidence associating GM plants with higher risks for the environment – or for food and feed safety – than (from) conventional plants and organisms".

"The European Parliament is now proposing to allow member states to disregard EFSA advice and ban the cultivation of GM crops for non-scientific reasons, quoting ’socio-economic factors", says Dr Ruscoe. "This is driven by political agendas rather than science, threatens the single market and discourages EU and UK scientific research. It also inhibits European private sector investment in agricultural biotechnology development and commercialisation. As a result EU food production is not benefitting from GMO traits."

Meanwhile, the benefits of GM technology are being appreciated in other parts of the world. In 2010, 15 million farmers planted around 150 million hectares of GM crops worldwide – thirty times the cropped area of the UK. The US and South America, Canada and China are now reaping these benefits, with India soon to follow.

Whilst EU Member States can ban GM crops on unscientific grounds, the UK is sensibly choosing not to. "We should exploit this competitive advantage," says Dr Ruscoe. "Originally the UK led the way in GM research ¬– particularly in agricultural biotechnology – and it still has important centres of excellence in this field, at the John Innes centre, NIAB, Rothamsted Research and Newcastle University. So, whilst the rest of the EU remains paralysed, the UK should again take the lead in researching traits – using GM and other plant breeding technologies."

"By targeting foreign aid into areas where it will have a sustainable impact in developing countries, and by exploiting our world class research base to provide appropriate technologies that improve food production and UK commercial competitiveness, we surely achieve a win-win situation," says Dr Ruscoe.

Farming UK

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