Giving the Institute of Food Science & Technology 2011 lecture at the Royal Society last month, King, now director of Oxford University’s Smith School of Enterprise and Environment, said the EU had set a non-GM “gold standard” that meant many countries had banned the technology out of fear of not selling products.
“We made what is a lifestyle decision in a part of the world where choosing whether to eat a GM tomato or not is a real choice,” he said.
“In other parts of the world, the choice is whether you have enough of anything to eat. And we are impacting on that decision-making process.”
He added that GM crop variants with drought-, disease- and saline-resistant properties would benefit developing nations, while ‘submergence-tolerant rice’ in particular could have “substantially reduced” deaths due to malnutrition.
Exploits plight of poor
But Richard Werran, md of food safety certification specialist Cert ID, told Food Manufacture: “King creates the impression that Europe is being unethical in its rejection of genetically modified organisms [GMOs], in fact his article is highly unethical.
It exploits the plight of the poor and hungry around the world for the purpose of promoting a technology, GM crops, that has little, if any, potential for helping those people.
Challenging King’s “uninformed comments” regarding GM foods, Werran said that an authoritative four-year study from the World Bank and UN agencies (published in 2008) did not endorse GM crops as a solution to world hunger.
Werran said the report concluded that GM crop yields were highly variable, and in some cases declined, while it identified agro-ecological farming as the key to future food security.
He added: “King [also] appears to be poorly informed about biotechnology. He says that submersion-resistant rice is decades away because of barriers to GM crops.”
Use of biotechnology could speed up traditional breeding, Werran said, to safely produce new crop varieties with better nutritional, taste, yield, pest and disease resistant properties, as well as tolerance to drought, heat, salinity and flooding.
One apposite example given King’s comments was a submersion-resistant rice variety called ‘Snorkel Rice’, said Werran, developed using Marker Assisted Selection (MAS) of genes naturally present in the rice population, and already being commercialised.
He added that although GM was used as a research tool to identify genes, the final variety was created without using genetic modification.
Sustainable agriculture key
Werran said the 2008 report called for culturally acceptable and sustainable food production systems, including low-input, energy-saving practices to preserve soil, save water and enhance natural pest resistance and resilience in crops.
Other measures included innovative farming methods to minimise use of costly chemical pesticides and fertilisers, and use of thousands of traditional varieties of major food crops naturally adapted to drought, heat, harsh weather, salinity, poor soil, pests and diseases.
Sustainable agriculture in the developing world have led to “dramatic increases in yields and food security”, Werran added, citing a 2008 report by the UN, which found that 114 organic or near-organic farming projects in 24 African countries had led to yield increases of over 100%.
“The report concluded that organic agriculture can be more conducive to food security in Africa than chemically-based production systems, and that it is more likely to be sustainable in the long term,” he said.