Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Genetically Modified or Genetically Enhanced? That is the Question.

As you may already know, a GMO is a genetically modified organism. Basically, you take an ordinary garden variety organism - say a tomato – and add new genetic material to it in order to change it. You might want to do this to make the tomato taste better, to be resistant to pests without the use of pesticides or perhaps even to make it ripen more quickly. It all sounds fairly innocent, but then words like cross pollination, “mutant” plants and even more frightening ones like “terminator technology” start to creep in and we all get very nervous indeed.

There are few subjects more likely to cause intense and even angry debate in these early years of the twenty-first century. As a housewife and mother, it leaves me more than a little concerned and confused. But what amazes me the most is the role the media have played in people’s perceptions of genetically modified organisms, and how, while opinions are fairly consistent within most individual countries, huge disagreement exists between countries throughout the world as to the safety and desirability of genetically modified crops.

For example, in Europe, public opinion is largely against genetically modified organisms. In the United Kingdom, due to warnings in the media against “Frankenstein Food” and organisations like Greenpeace predicting the end of the world as we know it if we embrace this technology, most people are pretty much afraid of foods that have been genetically modified. They are considered not only bad for you, but unethical as well. There is a small increase of opinion in favour of genetic modification as a few farmers realise it would allow them to grow more crops without having to use as many pesticides. But on the whole, particularly with the strong organic movement that exists here, genetic modification is looked on as very undesirable indeed. In fact, the BBC reported on 12th September of this year that there had been an “unauthorised release of GM seed” in Scotland and the wording of the article was so alarming you would swear it had been a release of unauthorised nuclear waste. Actually, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland have all agreed to make themselves GM free zones, with Dublin declaring the Republic of Ireland wish to do the same thing. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in London are hedging their bets, saying they prefer “to assess each application for GM crops on its merits without blanket approval or rejection”. Yet there is huge pressure on the UK government from the devolved administrations to make the UK entirely GM free.

As a British housewife, I am urged to avoid buying anything that might possibly contain genetically modified material, to read labels and buy organic wherever possible. I should be outraged that some farmers are buying imported feed for their animals containing genetically modified ingredients and that meat is being sold here. I should fight tooth and nail to keep genetically modified products from being imported into this country. And I should definitely not mention that during the time my family and I have spent in North America over the last few years I did knowingly purchase food with genetically modified ingredients and feed them to my family without so much as a second thought. Sadly, here in the UK, the idea that I might not be worried about genetic modification or that I might not check everything I give my family for these “Frankenstein” ingredients, suggests that I might not be a very caring person, and that I’m probably not a very good mother either.

However, in the United States and Canada, you rarely see the words “genetically modified” in the press. Rather you see the words “genetically enhanced”. My goodness, the media have made me feel better already. Enhanced is a good thing, isn’t it? Don’t we all want things to be enhanced and improved? Surely as housewife I would want to give my family something that has been made better? Would I not prefer for them to eat foods that have less pesticides on them? Do I not want food that both tastes and keeps better?

Definitely not here in England apparently. Nor am I to be moved by the fact that it seems that genetic modification might actually help us to feed more of the world. Monsanto’s huge mistake of researching and developing seed that does not actually bear more seed for planting (often referred to as “suicide seed”) has given the anti GM lobby seemingly unshakeable evidence that the big nasty corporate guys are only in this for the money. Of course, providing seed that does not re-seed to developing countries is ludicrous and unethical, but the possible benefits of genetic enhancement are being lost in the bad consumer image of one big multi-national. It is possible that genetic enhancement could provide food that does grow more easily for the poorest of farmers, in climates that are inhospitable and hard to produce food in. That would save lives and build economies in the poorest places in the world.

There’s also a difficult question lurking in the background at the moment no one seems to dare to mention. With the UK’s population constantly increasing, are we actually going to be able to grow enough food in this country to feed ourselves in the future? This applies to other countries too. With the damage caused to the environment by shipping food all over the world, it stands to reason that in time we may have to provide much of our own food resources “in house” as it were. Each country will need to provide food for its own, without relying on imports. And would the benefits of some forms of genetic modification not perhaps help us to grow more food using less resources? If we refuse to even consider this question, will we not find ourselves having to buy food from the countries who have adopted GM technology in the future? And just what impact will that have on our already bruised economies and the environment, not to mention our positions on the world’s political stage?

The debate rages on, and like politics and religion, genetic modification is fast becoming an inflammatory issue that you just don’t mention in polite conversation. And that’s a real shame, because if ever an issue needed to be discussed, this it definitely it.

We are left in a huge quandary, one that seems to have no easy answers. Yes, as a mother I would prefer to give my family natural, home grown products that have not been modified in any way. In fact, I would prefer to eat those products myself as well. But sadly in a few years time that just may not be possible, and burying our heads in the sand and refusing to even consider the benefits of some genetic modification is short-sighted and downright dangerous. I think DEFRA has it right. Each case should be considered on its own merits. I’m not convinced that all genetic enhancements are desirable or even required, nor am I convinced that we are going to start growing two heads or cause Armageddon if we do introduce some GM products carefully into our food chains. GM foods have been in the North American food chain since the early 1990’s and we are not seeing anything negative that can be directly linked to their consumption. In fact, I would wager a guess that here in the UK and Europe, we may be eating a lot more genetically modified products than we think we are.

So what does the 21st Century Housewife do? Well, I try to buy organic wherever possible and I do read labels. I follow the GM issue very closely and keep an open mind. But I’m not naïve enough to think that we can just close our minds and our doors to genetic modification of food and think it is going to go away because we are repelling it on all our borders. Sooner or later, something has to give.

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