I was genuinely surprised to read an article so much in favour of GM and “food engineering” in the Observer Magazine as “The future of food” in last weekend’s issue. Author Alex Renton quotes scientists Koert van Mensvoort (assistant professor at Eindhoven’s University of Technology), Louise Fresco (former head of food-innovation research and an advisor to the UN) and Tim Lang (Professor of Food Policy at London’s City University), and reasons that “when the future food arrives, most of us won’t have any choice about what we eat”.
What follows is a most depressing scenario: in 2035, Alex imagines, “the rice we buy is from reconstituted potato or barley”; “we eat vegetarian fish, grown in solar-heated, aquafarm sheds – developed from tropical varieties such as tilapia and catfish, and modified with lemon, tomato or herb genes to cover their basic muddy flavour”; and “our city street has its own small herd of GM cows”.
Is all this really necessary?
Yes, at least according to the ones who have a strong interest in widening research and investment in nano-technology, such as relevant research institutes and corporations who see a promising future market. Scientists who speak out against this are labelled as “another symptom of our ignorant and unsustainable nostalgia about food”, because, according to what the author calls “serious scientists”, traditional farming alone will not work.
Seems there are different views on this. An article in the summer 2012 issue of UK magazine The Land, an independent publication on land rights, states that at least Britain can farm itself. It is also questionable if food shortage and famine in the poorest countries of the world are actually down to the fact that there is not enough food; or to the mechanisms of a globalised economy that makes developing countries produce foodstuffs for the world market rather than their own people, where they then have to compete with subsidised products from the rich world.
Are we all Guinea pigs now?
One argument that from my point of view speaks strongly against a liberalisation for GM and otherwise engineered food products is that the long-term consequences are yet unknown. As The Land put it in its summer 2012 issue: “even if you do think there may be some value in GM technologies, there is still an overwhelming argument for keeping parts of the world free from GM [crops] as a control group.”
And the morale of this?
According to the Observer article, Cor van der Weele (Professor of Humanistic Philosophy at Wageningen University) is convinced that ethical concerns will ultimately drive public acceptance of the new food technology: “People will see the moral benefits of cultured meats. Taking stem cells from a pig rather than killing millions of pigs in factories is already a more attractive idea to consumers.”
It is a strong argument, however, I believe that the perspective is wrong. This standpoint assumes that the world has to be adapted to the ever-changing needs of mankind in a future world of 9 billion people because we “cannot go on eating food, especially meat, produced in the traditional way”. But this is true only if we continue expecting Iceland, Lidl and the like to constantly provide us with half-priced food products and if we keep eating meat at the pace and rate we do. Maybe it would be a better idea if, for a change, we adapted to the environment we flourished in and changed our consumption habits accordingly.
We will be what we eat
I believe that the further we move away from the traditional way of feeding ourselves the more we loose our already weak connection with nature. But at the end of the day it is our environment and its very special conditions that allowed us to thrive in the first place – “food” wasn’t just there because we needed it; on the contrary, mankind only developed because there were edibles that our bodies could metabolise. The food that we have been eating over centuries constitutes an enormous part of what we are today. If we start manipulating our nourishment it will ultimately have an impact on ourselves – on a biological, psychological and spiritual level as well. Personally, I would prefer not to live in a world of mutants come 2035.
Read a well-balanced article by Peter Melchett, Policy Director at the Soil Association, on pro-GM lobby’s seven deadly sins against science here.