GM food – how long will we ignore science and let people starve?

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June 27, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith

Despite my wish to provide a balanced view on economic or political issues, I have to admit to finding it quite difficult to do so on two debates. Firstly, I cannot understand how someone can stand and protest outside a fracking exploration site – which if successful could cut gas bills by over half, make us a net exporter of gas and stop our reliance on rogue states for energy, holding a sign saying “No fracking – end fuel poverty”. Secondly, given I think it is important that people don’t starve, I find it troublesome to give credence to arguments against using genetically modified (GM) crops.  Yes, I know that if all the food grown in the world every year was equally distributed everyone would eat over 3,600 calories a day – way more than they need – but given it isn’t equally distributed let’s not wait until that utopian day, let’s try and prioritise whatever will feed people.

This is about to become very important, because the EU is about to cede control over the issue of whether to allow GM crops to be grown back to national governments, having instituted an EU-wide ban since they appeared. This will probably mean France and Austria will continue with their ban, but in Britain, where we are not actually implacably opposed, sense may prevail.

But first, whereas we have had self-interested lobby groups exaggerating the benefits of HS2 (click here to read what I wrote about that), with GM we are going to have a coalition of groups – mostly environmentalists – exaggerating the costs of GM. This worries me, because I tend to like developments that might keep people alive.

The key arguments they will make are about the possible effect on the environment, the possible effect on other crops, the possible effect on our health and the possible problem of corporate control of the GM seeds. I have found some arguments against outlined here and here. There are plenty more. They have been strong enough to have caused the EU to outlaw the use of GM – because the EU operates on something called the ‘precautionary principle’ when the carry out a cost benefit analysis (CBA) of anything – which means that the risks have to be weighed but not the benefits of an innovation.

Those that are against GM questions that should be answered. But they have been answered.

Let’s start with health. Billions of GM meals have been eaten all over the world, without the health effects worried about.  Yet in Germany in 2011, organic bean sprouts killed 51 people in one E coli outbreak. GM food has killed nobody. In fact, some has been used to improve peoples’ health – but we in the UK can’t benefit from the purple tomatoes, rich in anti-cancer agents developed by scientists in Norwich, because they will have to be grown and sold in Canada, because GM foods are banned here.

To the argument that the genes can end up in unexpected places – think about the difference between situation 1 and 2 – and guess which one is GM.

Situation 1) A plant is grown where the pest resistance is inside it. This means that only the pest actually encounters the resistance agent

Situation 2) Potatoes require spraying with fungicide up to 15 times a season. Each time they are sprayed it costs money, burns diesel, compacts soil and kills innocent fungal bystanders

GM is a technology that is safe for human health, better for the environment, more effective than the alternative and economically beneficial to consumers and farmers. What else do we need to be worried about?

Oh yes, that a large company would ‘control’ the production of seeds. Monsanto is the most prominent bogeyman mentioned here. Well, how’s this for a self-fulfilling prophecy- such are the heavy-handed and expensive compliance regimes campaigned for by the likes of Greenpeace that only a large corporation could afford even to apply for approval for GM crops – which then was used to prove the point. That is the definition of a circular argument in my view.

Talking of Greenpeace – they have led a campaign against the non-profit, humanitarian campaign to produce vitamin-A-rich “golden” rice. This rice could prevent the death of hundreds and thousands of children each year from vitamin-A deficiency diseases. This would be the same company that last week lost $5.2million of charitable donations betting against the Euro (it was apparently a rogue trader – read about it here). Imagine if they put those charitable donations to good use!

As with fracking, I am all in favour of GM crops being properly regulated. I am in favour of being careful about them. But I more in favour of people not starving and not dying, which is why I would like to see the UK and other countries approve, as quickly as possible, the use of GM foods.


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