GM food: technology vs democracy
By Daniel Nelson
OneWorld UK, 19 December 2008
Attempts to introduce genetically modified foods had been "cack-handed" because proponents failed to understand that the issue was not technology but food culture, according to Timothy Lang, professor of food policy at London’s City University.
Opening a small exhibit, Future Foods An exhibition debating genetic modification, at the Science Museum in London this week, he said that though he was neutral on the issue of GM, he was highly critical of the way it had been introduced.
It was not a technical fix, he emphasised: GM technology might be useful "in some issues, in some places" but it could not fix all the food policy problems of the 21st century. For this reason, "I seriously urge those who are gung-ho about it to back off.
"It has done nothing to address issues of social inequality. And it cannot do so it's a technology, for goodness sake," he commented.
Although some saw the public controversy over GM as Luddism versus neutral technology, he viewed it "as a really valuable illustration of democracy that is, live debate about what we put in our mouths."
Controversy had been a timely reminder that "you can do anything you like to food but it is people who ultimately eat it ”¦ There is nothing like changing people's diets to either institute a food riot or institute political problems."
Lang said that GM technology, like everything else, had to be assessed through the lens of sustainable development. The evidence so far was that no harm has been shown from ingestion, but genetic pollution was an issue: many patent specialists were deeply troubled by ownership of the basis of life genes.
"The technical potential [of GM] has been distorted over how it has been introduced and who owns it. It is a classic case of the ownership of the technology rather than the technology."
Lang advocated public ownership of GM and more public investment in understanding the ecological and genetic basis of food.
"I believe food democracy is more important than food control and the problem with GM was that it was introduced within the ethos of food control, not food democracy."
Dr Emile Frison, director of Biodiversity International, Italy, emphasised that even if genetically modified technology did not produce food on the plate, it was a powerful research tool. He cited GM's crucial role in tackling new banana diseases in east Africa.
Like Lang, he criticised the decline in public sector agricultural investment, pointing out that all the east African banana research had been carried out in the public sector, funded by the Uganda government.
Earlier this year, he noted, heads of state had pledged to double investment in agricultural research: the question was, What kinds of research?
Traditionally, research had been focussed on yields, to the relative neglect of issues such as nutrition and sustainability. Farmers spread risk by growing different crops, he said, a model that modern agriculture had replaced with monoculture.
Another modern impact was the increase in obesity "and rapid increases in diseases of affluence even in the poorest countries".
There had also been too much investment in energy-rich, nutrient-poor foods: "We must revisit our model, and assess GM's role in it."
NOTE: There's quite a lot of information available online as part of the Science Museum's 'Future Foods An exhibition debating genetic modification' which runs at the museum (Exhibition Road, London, SW7) until 31 May.