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17 February 1999

Food frights

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 undermined.

Vote now in the LM Online opinion poll 'Would you eat food with genetically modified ingredients?'
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