Genetically modified crops will not solve the current food crisis, according to the head of one of the world’s largest agricultural biotechnology companies.

Martin Taylor, chairman of Syngenta, said the current industry focus on farmers in rich countries meant it would take 20 years to launch crop varieties designed to address the problems of the developing world. He told the Guardian: “GM won’t solve the food crisis, at least not in the short term.”

His words appear to contradict statements from UK politicians, industry bodies and the European Commission that GM technology should be considered as a way to address chronic shortages and soaring prices of basic staples across the world.

Recently, the environment minister, Phil Woolas, said Britain was rethinking its position on GM for that reason. He told the Independent newspaper: “There is a growing question of whether GM crops can help the developing world out of the current food crisis. It is a question that we as a nation need to ask ourselves. Many people concerned about poverty in the developing world and the environment are wrestling with this issue.”

A European Commission briefing documents says that GM crops can “play an important role in mitigating the effects of the food ‘crisis'”.

Syngenta is a member of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, along with other GM companies such as Monsanto and BASF. The council has said the technology “has to be seen as part of the solution” to combat rising food prices.

Supporters say that GM technology can boost crop yields and reduce losses caused by pests. Groups opposed to GM technology argue that companies are exploiting the current food crisis to win approval for their products.

Taylor told an agricultural conference in London this week that, because it was so expensive to win regulatory approval for a GM crop, the industry has been forced to focus on a few lucrative “blockbuster” varieties, which could be sold to western farmers but had “hardly any environmental benefits”.

He called for looser, cheaper regulations that would allow companies to develop thousands of GM crops for smaller, more diverse markets, including those in poorer countries. But he said it would take up to 20 years for them to be developed and tested. Existing varieties, largely designed for the climate, chemicals and pests of the northern hemisphere, would be unsuitable.

Most GM crops grown commercially are soya bean, maize, cotton and oilseed rape. Most goes into animal feed. None are grown commercially in Britain, though significant amounts are planted across Europe. The EU has an unofficial moratorium on approving new varieties – no new GM crop has been approved for commercial production since 1998 – but is coming under increasing pressure to review its stance. Taylor said its opposition was based on a “superstitious fear among supposedly educated people about new technology”.

Earlier this year, a major report from UN experts said there was little role for GM, as it is currently practised, in feeding the poor on a large scale. The report from the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) said: “Assessment of the [GM] technology lags behind its development, information is anecdotal and contradictory, and uncertainty about possible benefits and damage is unavoidable.” The GM industry, which helped to fund the report, pulled out before it was published.

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