There needs to be a public debate on the pros and cons of GM food, according to Warburtons executive director Ross Warburton, who claimed ignoring the issue was "stupid".

Warburton, who is also president of the Food & Drink Federation, said an evidence-based debate on the subject was needed to ensure consumers understood the issue.

"I don't want to sell anything consumers would react to negatively but to ignore the issue seems to be stupid," he said during a debate at this week's Food & Drink Expo. His comments came after the EU earlier this month approved its first GM product in more than a decade the starch potato Amflora.

"The onus is on the producer and seller of GM to demonstrate the benefits," he added. "At the moment this debate has only been had in a few newspapers." But he stressed Warburtons would not be switching to GM wheat as the quality did not meet its standards.

NFU acting director general Martin Haworth claimed the UK was losing out by not adopting GM when products such as blight-resistant potatoes were available. "If we cut ourselves out of the debate we are doing ourselves a huge disservice. We need GM crops in this country."

Haworth's comments are significant as the NFU has maintained a stance of neutrality on the issue, calling for a science-based public debate. Technology like GM was necessary if the UK was going to become more self-sufficient and increase production to feed a growing population, he stressed.

However retailers were still unconvinced of the argument, said BRC director of food and consumer policy Andrew Opie. "There's no consumer demand for GM food and there's plenty of non-GM available. While it's an important debate I think the jury's out because we haven't got consumer benefit."

GM food was also not much cheaper than non-GM by the time it reached shelves, Opie argued, and consumers would need to be convinced of the cost benefits before they got over their reservations.