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Top government boffin urges rethink on GM crop ban

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Dr David King will press the government to reopen the debate on genetically modified crops as his parting shot as the UK's chief scientist.

He will make the call this evening in front of an audience of fellow top boffins at the Foundation for Science and Technology in London.

In a wide-ranging farewell address, King will say: "By 2050 we will need to feed over nine billion people on the planet - we will, I believe only do this with the assistance of a third green revolution, and GM technologies will be crucial in delivery of this.

"I believe that it's now time to revisit the issue."

The controversy has rumbled on in the UK for a decade now. Most of the genes that have been inserted into crops that are now being grown commercially overseas, such as soya and cotton, confer resistance to herbicides in a bid to boost yields.

The government effectively slapped a moratorium for the "foreseeable future" on commercially grown GM foods in the UK in 2004 after years of ferocious lobbying on either side from environmentalists and biotech firms.

Media "Frankenstein foods" scare stories* also contributed to whipping up public fears, and some 70 per cent of Europeans say they are opposed to GM foods.

Nevertheless, a similar public controversy in Australia seems to have turned in favour of using gene technology. Today, New South Wales and Victoria lifted bans on GM rapeseed.

Earlier this year Westminster murmurs indicated moves are afoot to change tack here too.

Other countries have been less cautious, and as he leaves the civil service, King will become the highest profile Whitehall figure yet to make the case in public that the UK should proceed on a crop-by-crop basis.

He'll argue: "British science, in particular molecular biology is a world leader and we should be producing companies that will lead the world in this green revolution."

The first green revolution was driven by new trade systems and improvements to farming technologies such as irrigation made by Arabs in medieval times. The second was fired by the use of fertilisers and pesticides in the last century. Both allowed more efficient use of land to feed a booming population.

Advocates of a third green revolution envisage myriad benefits from advancing GM technology. Chemical giant BASF this year finished successful UK trials of a modified potato variety which is resitant to blight, the disease which caused the Irish potato famine.

Inserting genes that confer resistance to water stress into crops, meanwhile, will help people in the developing world ensure a harvest and safeguard drinking water, GM cheerleaders predict.

King will also use tonight's speech to push for a new generation of nuclear power stations in order to reduce carbon emissions. He'll say: "It is now the time to give the green light to nuclear energy. While I have high hopes for new zero-emissions technologies in the future, efficient nuclear-fission power stations are already available."

The scientist caused a stir in 2004 when he said climate change is a greater threat to security and stability than global terrorism. ®

*In October 2000, the Daily Mail wrote: "Genetic modification could lead to 'zombie' farm animals programmed to feel no pain or stress," for example. And there's plenty more where that came from.

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