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The debate around genetically modified crops would almost certainly puzzle an alien. “I don’t get it, you’ve found a way to boost crop yields and reduce pesticide use. It could be the answer to a pending crisis of global hunger, and vast swathes of the world do it already, with no ill-effect. Yet many governments avoid it in horror. Why?”
None of this is about science. Yet GM foods remain contentious partly out of pure suspicion and partly out of political cowardice by governments in areas of the world where there’s enough to eat already.
As The Times reports August 17, 2015, all of this may soon change. Sprays which deploy a phenomenon known as RNA interference, or RNAi, promise to unleash the benefits of genetic modification without actually modifying anything. They affect the behaviour of DNA without changing it. Thus, nothing “unnatural” enters the food chain.
One scientist, who published the results of a pioneering trial last month believes RNAi technology could render many conventional pesticides, which have side effects for other insect life, obsolete.
With the best will in the world, the benefits of RNAi’s will be years away. It would be a tragedy, however, if they were decades away. As with any new technology, rigorous testing for both safety and efficacy is essential. But the nature of RNAi technology should mean that established concerns about GM crops simply do not apply.
Even mention biotechnology, however, and regulators panic. EU procedures for greenlighting new crops are desperately slow. Last year, Owen Paterson, then the environment secretary, warned that Europe would become “the museum of world farming.”
Europe missed the boat on GM technology. This is not a mistake we should make again. If European regulators lack the courage to move faster on GM crops, they should at least recognise that not all areas where biotechnology meets farming are equal.