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Rosie Hailes

Professor Rosie Hails is head of population, molecular and community ecology at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

Is the UK ready to rethink its stance on GM?

Faced with climate change and a global population pushing seven billion, we need serious solutions, says ecologist Rosie Hails. And like it or not, she thinks scientists, politicians and the public need to reconsider GM.

In March, the United Nations announced the world's population would reach the seven billion mark early in 2012, and top nine billion by 2050. We are already failing to feed a significant proportion of the world's population: tonight, some 850-900 million people will go to bed hungry, but over the next 25-50 years we will need to double food production.

The same month, 2500 experts from 80 countries met in Copenhagen to discuss climate change. Their conclusions made worrying reading, not least because our ability to grow food is closely tied to our climate.

The latest evidence, they said, shows that the worst-case predictions made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are being realised. Temperature rises above 2°C will be difficult for societies to cope with and poor nations will fare worst. Above all, they warned, inaction is not an option.

The question is, what action should we take?

As an ecologist, I have spent the past 25 years trying to understand how the natural world works. Above all, I've learned that ecosystems are complex things, and that the health of our economy is closely linked to the health of our environment.

Don't rule anything out

Solving problems like climate change and food shortages require a whole range of solutions. Science can help us find some of the solutions, but the scale and urgency of the task mean we can't afford to rule anything out. That should be our first action.

Secondly, we must be imaginative. We need to use agricultural land to deliver multiple services - to produce food and fuel at the same time as conserving biodiversity.

For example, most genetically-modified (GM) crops currently on the market are either herbicide tolerant or insect resistant. But there are several novel crops in the development pipeline - such as potatoes resistant to nematodes, crops that use nitrogen more efficiently and plants that could clean up contaminated land - which are much more imaginative. However, this wide variety of products all carry the same label of 'GM' because of the method by which the plants are produced. This hides the very different ways in which they may interact with the environment.

Thirdly, we need a change in legislation. Current environmental laws have many strengths but focus on risks and do not consider benefits. The regulatory focus is predominantly on GM, but what about the consequences of widespread introduction of other novel crops such as biofuels?

We have tough choices to make about how to feed a growing global population at the same time as mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change. We need regulations that help us make the best decisions.

We need more holistic decision-making tools too. The world uses 25 million tonnes of pesticides a year. The production and application of herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers means intensive farming is a significant contributor to greenhouse gases. We should be using new decision-making tools - like the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment's Comparative Sustainability Assessment - to weigh up the risks and benefits of how we grow our food.

Put aside past prejudices

Finally, we need to behave like adults. That means being open minded, taking a fresh approach, and learning from our mistakes. As a society, we need to put aside past prejudices about GM crops so that we can debate what part they could play in solving some of our problems. Prejudice is apparent on both sides of the debate; we should neither overstate the risks nor overplay the benefits.

Scientists need to be able to conduct research without having their field trials vandalised, but the quid pro quo is that scientists must be more proactive in engaging in the public debate.

We are living in serious times. We need to rethink our relationship with the environment. In the past, humans thought themselves a species apart, and the environment as something to be exploited. We now understand how dependent we are on it - it's to time to act on that understanding and to manage our natural capital more wisely.

Professor Rosie Hails MBE is Head of Population, Molecular and Community Ecology
at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, a member of the UK Government's Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE) and chair of the Natural Capital Initiative committee

These and similar issues will be debated at the Valuing our Life Support Systems Symposium on 29 April - 1 May in London. The event is part of the Natural Capital Initiative.


Professor Rosie Hails MBE is Head of Population, Molecular and Community Ecology at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, a member of the UK Government's Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE) and chair of the Natural Capital Initiative committee

These and similar issues will be debated at the Valuing our Life Support Systems Symposium on 29 April - 1 May in London. The event is part of the Natural Capital Initiative.

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