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GM food: controversial still?

April 7, 2013

At dinner with friends recently, the subject of GM food elicited vehemently negative reactions from a couple of people. This caught me by surprise but according to a Deloitte survey in the US in 2010, 34% of people were very or extremely concerned about GM food. This was down from 37% in 2008.

I was surprised because I had read (and retweeted) 4 articles on GM food over the previous couple of months which had led me to believe that GM food is capable of saving millions of lives right now, reducing disease and negative environmental impacts, and ultimately making food an abundant resource so that no human being is underfed.

Admittedly retweeting 4 articles hardly constitutes in-depth research, but let me share with you some details from one article from The Guardian newspaper on Golden Rice. (Click here to read the full article).

Two million infants die each year from Vitamin A deficiency and millions more go blind. In 1999, GM rice was developed that provides a sufficient daily dose of Vitamin A in just 60 grams of rice. It is known as Golden Rice and trial production may start in the Philippines next year. The developers have waived their license rights and the Gates Foundation (Bill and Melinda Gate’s not-for-profit organisation) are funding the project.

Mark Lynas, a founder of the anti-GM movement, now concedes that the benefits outweigh the concerns. “You cannot call yourself a humanitarian and be opposed to GM crops today”, said Lynas.

Since the dinner, I have looked at the anti-GM food arguments, particularly those of Greenpeace given their influence. There are 2 main objections: the risks of tampering with nature and the risk of corporate control of food supply.

Both are legitimate concerns but making progress for the benefit of humanity is always about balancing the benefits and the risks. The story of human progress has been based on using natural resources to extend our capabilities. Capitalism, while far from perfect, has been the most successful system for allocating resources and facilitating progress.

The risks associated with scientific development and corporate ownership of critical assets should be addressed through regulation, education, and transparency. High standards of evidence should be required to demonstrate the safety and benefits of GM foods. Any attempts at profiteering through monopoly or oligopoly positions by companies should be addressed by Government intervention to facilitate competition. The challenges associated with managing the risks inherent in GM food development are difficult but not insurmountable.

For affluent consumers concerned about bio-diversity and supporting small-scale, local food production, then click here to listen to the advice of Simran Sethi in this TED talk (with an anti-GM undertone) and plant seeds / eat foods that are not part of the industrial food supply chain. The growth of farmers’ markets, artisan food makers, and vertical farms are already testament to this approach as part of the solution.

However, at the same time as enjoying the range of food available to us, think whether the prospect of saving the lives of 2 millions infants each year and improving the quality of life for millions more through the development of GM foods outweighs the risks. While demanding high standards of evidence to prove the safety of Golden Rice is sensible, the cost of delays in production is measured in millions of deaths.

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