Imagine there are two plates of food in front of you. One is labelled “natural”, the other “genetically modified”. Which would you choose? I know what I’d do. Regardless of what the logical side of me knows, I’d feel more comfortable eating “natural” food.In an ideal world, this wouldn’t be a problem. If people don’t want to eat GM food, they shouldn’t have to, regardless of whether their reasons are rational or not. Food is about so much more than just stuffing down nutrients, after all, and how we feel about what we eat really does matter.Trouble is, the world is far from ideal. Nearly a billion people go hungry because they cannot grow or buy enough food. And there are problems with the food we do eat. An estimated 2 billion people suffer from a lack of iron, causing everything from tiredness to premature death. Around 250 million preschool children are short of vitamin A, leading to blindness in the worst cases.
The outlook is grimmer still. There will be ever more mouths to feed, and ever more challenges facing farmers. Fuel and fertilisers are becoming more costly, soils are eroding or becoming saline, pests and diseases are evolving to outwit our defences. To add to our woes, the climate is changing and the weather becoming more extreme. In fact, farming is a massive part of this problem—it contributes more to global warming than all the world’s cars, trains, ships and planes put together. Rising food prices not only cause suffering, but also threaten political stability.5 So the world desperately needs better crops. The good news is that they can be improved dramatically. We know it’s possible to boost yields by improving the efficiency of photosynthesis, for instance, because some plants have already evolved this improvement. Similarly, there’s no doubt we could create crops that need less water, grow in salt water or make their own nitrogen fertiliser, for instance. As for making grains and fruits richer in iron or vitamin A, it’s already been done.
So why aren’t people in poor countries already eating healthier food, richer in iron and vitamin A? Partly they can’t afford to pay for it, so commercial companies have little incentive to develop such crops. Instead, such work has to be funded by public money or philanthropists such as Bill Gates.A big part of the problem, of course, is the vociferous objection to GM foods. While the line between conventional breeding and genetic engineering is increasingly blurred, it is generally only practical to produce crops with complex new properties by deliberately modifying their DNA, rather than inducing random mutations and hoping a few will have the desired trait (as in conventional breeding).The opposition to GM crops is making it much harder to get funding to carry out the necessary research and to get over all the regulatory hurdles. Earlier this year, for instance, campaigners attacked the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for funding the development of nitrogen-fixing crops that could boost yields without boosting emissions of the highly potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide. Simply not needed, apparently.
Greenpeace, meanwhile, tried to halt field trials of vitaminA-rich “Golden Rice” in the Philippines, on the ludicrous basis it would deter the consumption of vegetables.The Monsantos of this world have the economic muscle needed to get crops approved despite protests, but for cash-strapped universities, it’s a different story. Their development of the crops we so desperately need is being impeded by anti-GM protesters.10 How can this opposition be overcome? Not by rational argument, that’s for sure. Even for those who understand that nature is the ultimate mad scientist, and that plants are riddled with all kinds of genetic modifications, from mistakes made during DNA replication to insertions of viral DNA, it doesn’t make existing GM crops any more appealing.Rather, we need to win people’s hearts as well as their minds. And the way to do that is to make GM foods appealing. Instead of crops designed mainly to boost the profits of large corporations, we need a new generation of GM crops that offers clear benefits to consumers, from looking better to tasting better to being better for us.
Scare stories about cellphones causing cancer didn’t stop them taking off because they are so useful. Similarly, scare stories about GM foods will lose their power if GM products that help prevent cancer or heart disease can be bought in supermarkets.The very last way to win hearts is to trick people to eat GM crops by not telling them what’s in their food. Californians may have voted down the proposal for mandatory labelling of GM foods—Proposition 37—after food firms spent $45 million on TV ads telling them it would raise food prices, hurt farmers and spark legal wrangles. Few consumers will be any keener on eating GM food, though—quite the contrary.Prop 37 was flawed, and many of the arguments for it were nonsense. Its opponents argued that the science says there are no ill effects of eating GM, so labelling, which might deter GM consumption, is unnecessary.
A triumph for science over anti-science then? No. The argument against Prop 37 really boiled down to something more disturbing: “If we tell people what’s in their food, they will make the wrong choice, so we shouldn’t give them one.”Why is the US of all places protecting GM foods rather than letting them sink or swim in a free market? Companies should instead persuade people that their new products are better than the alternative.15 If all countries insisted on GM labelling, corporations would be forced to convince consumers of the benefits. As it stands, in California the companies who have helped engender such rabid distrust of GM foods have been let off the hook. Prop 37 could have been a catalyst for change. Instead the status quo remains—and we’ll all be the losers in the end.