We started this discussion last Monday by asking our experts what the main issue is for feeding the world in 2050. Each expert gave a detailed answer and it is clear that no-one thinks genetically modified food is THE “silver bullet” answer.
There seemed to be consensus that a range of changes in agriculture are required. Intercropping, better access to inorganic fertiliser, reduction of food waste and infrastructure were all mentioned. Commenters suggested a change in diet, contested the assertion that GM crops gave higher yields, discussed permaculture and even population control.
A question about GM vs organic in terms of taste and healthiness sparked a lot of debate, with over 30 comments. Taste was regarded as very subjective and not particularly relevant. Dividing lines emerged on healthiness. People cited studies to back up their positions, but there was disagreement about their validity. It was pointed out that non-GM varieties of anthocyanin-rich tomatoes had been produced. What are the differences between GM crops and selectively bred plants?
The first issue raised is that genetic modification is a technique not a product and therefore each time the technique was used testing would be required. GM proponents point out that the testing for GM food is more rigorous than for new plants being registered for food. Some argue that there’s no evidence of ill effects from eating GM food. Others allege it’s not really being looked for, and claim existing research is mostly funded or associated with the GM crop industry.
But the safety aspects of eating the crops weren’t the only concerns. Contamination of other crops featured highly. Is it safe to plant GM crops outdoors or will we end up with more and more crops inadvertently containing some GM plants. Will people retain a choice to buy completely GM free food? The GM proponents’ answer revolves around separation distances and threshold levels of GM seeds and food.
And this is where the two sides of the argument meet.
Proponents of GM argue that 0.9% of a foodstuff containing GM elements is acceptable. [UPDATE: the 0.9% threshold only applies in EU law if it is accidental or technically unavoidable otherwise any GM content should be labeled]. Those against either dispute that level or ask whether it is possible to practically maintain such a level.
So on the one hand we have people who think that their choice to eat GM-free food will be gradually eroded, and that there are other ways to achieve the benefits that GM is said to bring. On the other hand are people who think the thresholds can be maintained, and that the benefits of continuing to develop GM food outweigh the risks.
This could be the nub of the matter. Questions about whether it is safe to eat GM food are easily solved. Those who trust the testing being done, can eat them. Those who don’t, won’t. Those who think it will help solve food security issues will argue for more funding of GM research. Those who favour other methods will argue for the promotion of those alternatives.
Is this really the most contentious issue on GM Food? How will you as a citizen make up your mind? What information would help you?
And as Andy Stirling said in one answer: “let’s celebrate the inherently political nature of science”