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Introduction: Royal Society report on GM plants

There have been long running debates about the use of new technologies for agriculture, and these have been especially prominent around genetically modified crops. There are parallels with climate change, and following the success of the ‘Climate Change: Evidence and Causes’ document, the Society decided to produce a similar document on genetically modified (GM) crops, identifying questions from the public and then answering them as accurately and as dispassionately as possible.

To identify the questions, Ipsos MORI were commissioned to carry out a series of focus group discussions. The focus groups were in different regions of the UK and targeted different types of individual. The following set of 18 questions was the outcome of the responses from the focus groups.

The answers to the questions were written by a group of experts who have endeavoured to ensure the answers are factual, as much as possible, and not associated with any value judgement. The aim was not to present comprehensive reviews with scientific details, but instead to provide succinct accounts that will be accessible to non-scientists.

In the Society’s report Reaping the benefits, published in 2009, it set out its views that a range of technologies will be required to address the challenges of sustainable and sufficient food and agriculture, and GM is only one of the technologies that could be used. It will not be sufficient on its own but it may be useful for addressing some of the challenges facing agriculture. Our earlier report provides a broader discussion of the challenges to food crop production, how sustainable intensification might be achieved and the consequences and complications of innovation in this area.

The questions and answers given here are intended to provide a resource to those who are interested in what GM is, how it is used and potential future uses. They will hopefully inform a larger debate on what the system that produces food globally should look like.