Former Unilever chief scientist professor Peter Lillford has launched a withering critique of the "alarming lack of scientific literacy" characterising the debate over food production.
Speaking to Food Manufacture at the launch of The vital ingredient, a new report into the role of chemical engineering in sustainable food production, Lillford said suspicion of science was now actively thwarting efforts to feed the planet.
Investment in science and technology was vital in order to find sustainable ways of doubling food production by 2050, argued Lillford, who is also chair of the Royal Society of Chemistry's food steering group.
However, the tendency of some stakeholders to pit "nature vs science" or "kitchens vs laboratories", was "downright misleading", he said.
Consumers were "quite right to question what's in their food", he added. "But public engagement is necessary so consumers are aware of the benefits of new technologies and are not frightened of the unknown. I am deeply concerned about the alarming lack of scientific literacy in this debate."
Rather than demonising chemical engineers, he added, we should recognise the unique contribution they could make to developing more nutritious, satiating and sustainable food via a host of novel technologies from novel enzyme chemistry to nanotechnology. Chemists could also help squeeze more value out of precious natural resources, he argued. "Raspberries will become like crude oil: every part must be used so we maximise their value and get everything we can from the waste stream as well."
A shortage of qualified scientists and engineers meant the UK was also becoming a less attractive place for major firms to locate R&D investment, he added.
As for biotechnology, this should be used to develop higher-yielding, more nutrient-rich drought and pest-resistant crops, he said. "Regulations must be based on evaluation of risk, using sound evidence, and not on a socio-political fear of new technology."
On a more practical note, the fact that vast tracts of land outside the EU were now devoted to the production of genetically modified (GM) crops meant maintaining a non-GM stance would become unsustainable, he said.
"The supermarkets are going to have to do a u-turn on GM I'd say in the next three years. We're in a ludicrous position.
"Go to India or South America and talk about this and you realise it really is a British backyard issue on the world stage."