Dr Julian Little, chair of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, told a conference on 21-century farming that 125 million hectares of land was used for GM crops last year. "That's equivalent in area to the UK, Ireland, France, Belgium and Germany. Around 13 million farmers grow GM crops globally; 13 million of them in developing countries."
Dr Little, who was speaking at the forum in Whitehall, London, last week, said GM technology would not solve all the problems of food security, but could help ease pressures.
Crop Protection Association chief executive Dominic Dyer agreed genetic modification was no "silver bullet" but was an important tool that must be looked at.
Strong anti- and pro-lobbies had turned the debate into verbal "trench warfare", but Dyer welcomed more government involvement.
He also welcomed recent announcements from the Food Standards Agency to set up a steering committee to take the debate to a "wider public". "But the food chain must be honest with the consumer. Supermarkets will have a massive challenge and must look at supply-chain efficiencies of the growing of crops," Dyer added.
Which? chief policy adviser Sue Davies said recent surveys in Wales and by IGD food and grocery consultancy showed people were less opposed to GM food than in the past. She called for "robust regulatory oversight and approval processes" and transparency and openness in research to avoid "going back to a polarized debate".
Defra head of GM policy Dr Stuart Wainwright said: "GM has a role but probably quite a small one. Solutions to climate change and food security need to be needs rather than technology led. A lot of products don't seem to offer consumer benefits and until that changes I don't see a great breakthrough taking place."
Dr Wainwright said safety must remain the top priority, so labelling and public engagement were crucial. A major disincentive was vandalism of GM crops, which was "totally unacceptable".
"We need to use a huge range of solutions and processes to tackling climate change, food security and sustainability. Genetic modification is just one small part, but if it offers the right kind of solutions we could pursue it."
But Soil Association director Patrick Holden said there were no yield benefits to GM crops, which were not "resilient, secure or sustainable".
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