Dr Geoffrey Savage
2 November 2004
Labelling will make modified foods a non-issue
Food manufacturers and our Government have faltered in front of a noisy minority who oppose genetically modified (GM) foods, but recent Government moves are encouraging. Despite findings which show that GM foods pose no danger to human health many Europeans and New Zealanders continue to oppose the introduction of new foods developed by transferring specific genes. In contrast, American consumers remain largely unconcerned about the modification of crops and American food producers continue to sow crops that have been modified to give a production advantage.
New Zealand’s stance on GM foods and the influence of public opinion would appear to be strangely out of sync with our attitudes to food in general. In terms of how we value food, most New Zealanders take after the majority of Americans. In the United States, food is merely a fuel that keeps bodies operating and neutralises hunger. Typically Americans eat while on the move, at street corners, behind their desks or in their cars. Food is collected in standard units from drive-through dispensaries, with little variation on the burger-and-fries theme. Americans fork the food in or push it in with their fingers, and then get on with what they’re doing.
Typically in Europe, food is what weaves the day together, and dining is the highlight. Food is examined, compared, prized and savoured at length; it is an integral part of the culture. Europeans linger over dinner. They lunch for hours and turn everyday meals into social occasions. Consequently, the thought of their food being modified is viewed with suspicion.
In New Zealand, the concern around genetic modification of foods reflects a European set of values. And yet our behaviour does not line up with these values at all. It seems that a large proportion of our population is perfectly happy to eat fast food out of cardboard boxes. It would seem they are relatively unconcerned about their health. It requires major public campaigns to persuade people to exercise, quit smoking, avoid Type II diabetes or even to eat fresh vegetables. These behaviours are decidedly un-European.
There is a similar division in our perspectives on agriculture. Much farmland in the United States is devoted to large-scale, single-crop agri-business. European farms are smaller and often family-run, with greater crop variety. So while the switch to GM crops is seen as a change in business operations in the US, it is perceived in Europe as a change in the way families earn their living.
In New Zealand, the resistance to GM organisms in agriculture looks like a European response. But again it does not tally with our behaviour. Conventional cross-breeding and the use of improved fertilisers and pest control techniques have led to very significant improvements in agricultural production. There are signs that these technologies have reached their limit, and so scientists will need to be much more creative to maintain our lifestyle.
Our country has been built on an investment in pastoral and agricultural research. We cannot afford to ignore new ways to improve the efficiency and quality of our products. We have excellent checks and balances to protect our environment, and now we must test our new products in the field. Destroying the test plots is not the answer, especially when we see major changes occurring in the European position on GM foods. Approval for certain foods, provided it was labelled as containing GM products, has now occurred. Many people believe that if foods are clearly and correctly labelled there will be no problem.
So what does the ordinary person want from their food? They want it to be reasonably priced, tasty and nutritious. The organic food movement suggests that food should contain less contaminants, but cannot say how much less or why.
The average person has a nagging doubt about the value of modern food items. The supermarkets and health food shops trade on this insecurity by providing endless combinations of supplements and “healthy alternatives.” Despite this, the food available to us today contains more than adequate amounts of all the nutrients we need and GM foods will be no different.
In terms of the safety of GM foods, we need to recall the introduction of the potato into Europe. Potatoes contain some nasty toxins but by and large we manage this food product to minimise the risks. We can do the same with GM food. We can say with certainty that any new foods introduced will be more rigorously tested than any food we currently eat. And the reason for such close attention is simple: food producers are in business for the long haul and they cannot afford to make a mistake.
Some years ago my colleagues and I gave a paper in which we stated that the whole issue of GM foods could be solved by accurate and truthful labelling - the consumer makes the choice. We contended that it will slowly become apparent that GM food is not the threat it has been made out to be. With the passage of time there is evidence of this occurring. Just as the Europeans accepted the potato, they have now accepted a superior form of sweet corn – on the proviso that it is labelled. It’s likely that this form of sweet corn will become standard fare for many European consumers, just as the potato did. It took years for the potato to be accepted, and we should expect no difference with GM foods.
In the meantime, organic food will be for the few people who can afford to pay more for something that gives no additional benefit (beyond a fit with their beliefs). For everybody else GM crops will provide possibilities of increased production and possibly lower costs. Once individual people can choose for themselves the issue will fade away. The organic movement will continue to be based on faith and will presume to speak for a majority which, while they may nod in agreement on some points, will buy food products that have been improved and enhanced through the efforts of science and fit their budget.
Dr Geoffrey Savage is Senior Lecturer in Food Biochemistry at Lincoln University .