17 February 1999
The panic about GM food is not based on science or fact, but on fear,
argues Tony Gilland
Scares about genetically modified (GM) food have exploded over the past
week, with consumer and environment groups calling for a ban and national
newspapers pressuring the government for 'more information'. Why has this
issue hit the headlines now? As Professor Derek Burke wrote in last
Saturday's Guardian, 'nothing new has happened to cause this stir. Nobody
has died, nobody is even sick, just nothing has happened'.
But 'nothing new' can be big news when it comes to GM food. Take the
example of the statement signed by 20 international scientists last Friday,
arguing that experiments had shown 'very clearly that the transgenic
GNA-potato had significant effects on immune function [in rats]'. This
immediately led to headlines like 'Alarm over "Frankenstein foods"' and
'Food scandals exposed'. Nobody mentioned that toxins harmful to humans
exist in many 'natural' food products, and that the GNA-potato has not even
been put forward for approval yet, much less been approved.
The scares about GM food are based not on science or fact, but on fear.
Many argue that these fears are generated by the public, with 'survey after
survey' apparently revealing how we are all 'concerned' about the possible
dangers of genetically modified ingredients. But in reality the negative
reaction to GM food is coming from interest groups, the media and
politicians. What 'survey after survey' really reveal is how successful
campaign groups have been in using the media to instil fear and prejudice
on this issue.
Until the recent panic there had not been much impact on the public's
buying habits. Over 1.6 million tins of genetically modified tomato puree
have been sold, despite being clearly labelled as GM and being on the
adjacent supermarket shelf to conventional tomato puree. Supermarket
managers and food companies admitted to being bemused by how few enquiries
they had had about GM products - but now, after a week of scares,
Sainsbury's has launched its own telephone helpline dedicated to answering
questions about GM food, since its general information helpline had been
flooded with worried callers in recent days. The bandwagon of fear rolls
on, showing that the public may well be persuaded that we are in the throes
of a major food safety crisis, despite the fact that nobody has died,
nobody has got sick, and people seem to enjoy GM tomato puree.
What of the government's role in the GM panic? Tony Blair has insisted that
we should focus on the 'science of the matter' and has even taken the 'John
Gummer approach' by demonstrating his own willingness to eat GM food. But
the New Labour government has consistently avoided confronting the scare
stories generated by campaign groups, and has sought to include such groups
in the decision-making process. New Labour is keen to tighten up food
regulations, not based on scientific evidence or a real need, but in order
to assuage the 'public concerns' that the campaign groups have played such
a major part in creating.
Until more people are prepared to challenge the way in which the flow of
'information' to consumers and the public is controlled by a minority of
people within campaign groups and sections of the media, the ability of
consumers - and society - to enjoy the benefits of GM technology will be
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