Speaking at yesterday's National Farmer's Union Conference, Iain Ferguson, chief executive of Tate & Lyle and president of the UK's Food and Drink Federation (FDF), said British food prices are rising at their fastest rate since records began. He quoted the Daily Telegraph as saying food prices in the UK are fuelling a rise in the average family's annual shopping bill of £750. "We have to face up to the issue of genetic modification and rise to the challenge of helping to foster a fair and scientific debate on an issue that has typically been clouded by suspicion and a lack of trust," Ferguson said. "The current economic climate with rising food prices and concerns over long term availability of commodities may well give us the opportunity to begin to do this." Farmers have remained cautious to support the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) while consumers continue to express concern on their environmental impact and possible long term health risks. Food prices Mounting raw material costs worldwide have been blamed on an increase in demand from emerging economies such as China, extreme weather conditions damaging crops, and, in regards to cereals, competing products like biofuels changing market dynamics. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, global prices will continue rising, possibly by 20 per cent in the next ten years. Ferguson said at the conference that genetic modification could help overcome food shortages and that GMO corn varieties in the US, with higher yielding performance, have helped farmers and agri-processors meet the 15 per cent extra requirement for ethanol. He added: "In a sense this is nothing new. Historically farming has always embraced new technology to overcome supply issues." A genetic solution? Ferguson suggested at the conference that it was becoming evermore difficult for manufacturers to make products without using genetic modification. Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, added that higher food prices may provide a "window of opportunity" for the acceptance of GMOs. However, the unstable political situation surrounding GM crops in Europe is putting up barrier as EU member states struggle to agree on a biotech policy. Austria enforced a ban on the import and processing of Monsanto's MON810 and Bayer's T25 maize in June 1999. The Commission has been debating whether to force the country to lift its restrictions since 2005, as Austria has never produced the necessary scientific evidence to contest the positive assessment of the products by Europe's food safety authorities. France has complicated the matter when it chose to extend its temporary ban on the cultivation of MON810, applying the same EU measure by arguing the costs to health posed by GM crops. Furthermore, consumers and environment organisations maintain caution over GM products, fearing their possible long term health risks and effects on the environment. One of the main concerns is regarding cross-contamination with conventional crops. Friends of the Earth campaigner Clare Oxborrow said: "Consumers in Europe have rejected GM foods, and labelling rules allow us to avoid foods with GM ingredients." Still, the biotech industry has experienced growth. Last year, over 110,000 hectares of biotech crops were harvested in seven EU member states, compared to 62,000 hectares in 2006. This represents a 77 per cent increase. The only type of GM crop grown in the EU is maize, which was approved in 1998. It is not cultivated for human consumption but for animal feed. Ferguson said: "One of the largest challenges in recent times, faced by food processors and farmers alike, has been the changing role of government (particularly in context of the EU) and its influence on food production and regulation." He added that businesses must respond to the challenge of a changing regulatory environment through innovation and collaboration, while encouraging scientific debate on genetic issues.