The Gastromancer’s Official Position on Genetically Modified Food.
First let me bluntly state that someday I hope my blind father could have healthy genes transported into his ruined eyes to bring back the sight he lost to the genetic disease known as retinitis pigmentosa. There is a place in this world for genetic research, for efforts to put healthy genes back into a person suffering from RP, Cystic Fibrosis, or Sickle Cell Anemia, - all brought on by defective genes. This branch of medical research nobly strives to remedy and reverse genetic defects that cause human suffering.
Let me now, as bluntly, state that there is no equally compelling rationale to justify the application of gene splicing technology to the food we eat.
That is not to say that people claim otherwise. One of the most compelling arguments is that trends show that in fifty years there will be 20 billion people on this planet who will all need something to eat. But the claim that genetically modified foods are the only way we can be delivered from the threat of an impending famine is disingenuous.
United States agriculture currently produces three times the amount of calories needed by every man and woman and child that lives in this country, yet there are still people who go hungry in America. Why? Hunger persists because modern famines are not caused by a lack of food, but rather from a lack of money to buy food. No less than Nobel laureate Dr Amartya Sen has proven this over and over again. Modern famine is the result of structural problems with the food distribution system, not problems with the food production system.
If anything, genetically modified foods threaten to further exacerbate this problem. Many of these foods are dependant on specific ‘trigger’ fertilizers to prompt the spliced genes to express themselves. Others are designed to be resistant to specific herbicides. With ninety percent of the world’s agriculture practiced by subsistence farmers in under-developed countries, how can we expect that these poor farmers could possibly afford to buy not just the genetically modified seeds but all of the chemicals required to manage genetically modified crops? ‘But wait’, you say, ‘they don’t have to…’. Not initially, no they don’t, but once a genetically modified crop such as corn is released to a farmer birds and breezes spread its genetically modified pollen far and wide. Studies already show genetically modified attributes appearing in wild corn from remote mountainous areas in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. (Article) And remember, there is no ability to ‘recall’ this product if we find out later that we did not anticipate all the impacts of genetically modified foods. Once they are released they become a permanent part of our world.
For me the distinction between good genetic research and the hubristic bullying of nature is this; where we find a defect in a natural system, such as a normally sighted person losing their vision due to a genetic anomaly, we ought to act and apply whatever knowledge we have regarding genetic processes to find a remedy for that defect. What defect does a tomato spliced with fish genes hope to overcome? Is the need for a tomato to remain visually attractive to a prospective buyer for more than a month after it has been picked enough of a rationale to warrant messing with the fundamental building blocks of life on earth?
So there you have it, the Gastromancer’s opposition to genetically modified food is not just a matter of taste. Why are we not concentrating on fixing the structural problems with the world’s food distribution systems? Why are we funding research on how to grow more food while we also fund subsidy programs that encourage farmers to grow less food? Why have we not used this money to properly fund the kind of long-term studies that would definitively address the legitimate safety concerns that arise with genetically modified foods?
The criteria for determining if one should accept a genetically modified food is simple; ask yourself, ‘what defect are they trying to remedy through the introduction of this food?’ If the answer is anything like, ‘farmers can increase their yields using this crop’, reject the food. We don’t need added food production capacity at this time. Such a food is all about creating profits for agri- business not feeding starving people.
In fifty years it may become appropriate to leverage genetically modified foods, but this option should only be leveraged as a last resort, and certainly only after we fix the serious structural problems in the world’s food economy, problems that allow people in developing countries to starve while industrialized countries pay their farmers to NOT grow food. Fortunately this gives us plenty of time for the careful and thorough testing of this technology.
For more information on the politics of genetically modified foods, read;