In a recent speech to the National Farmers’ Union, Iain Ferguson, CEO of Tate & Lyle and president of the UK’s Food and Drink Federation, said: "We have to face up to the issue of genetic modification (GM) 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. The current economic climate with rising food prices and concerns over long-term availability of commodities may well give us the opportunity to do this."

The only GM crop grown in the EU is maize, which was approved in 1998 for use as an animal feed.

Ferguson said genetic modification could help overcome food shortages and that higher yielding GM corn varieties in the US have helped farmers meet the 15% extra requirement for ethanol.

In a separate announcement, Tate & Lyle said that it will switch its entire retail sugar output to Fairtrade by the end of 2009. There was no immediate plan to do the same in its ingredients division.

It has been working in partnership with the UK-based Fairtrade Foundation to help cane farmers in Belize, where it sources all its white cane sugar, to meet Fairtrade standards.

The change to Fairtrade has been two years in the planning, said the company. Hurricane Dean devastated farms in Belize in 2007.