In the months ahead in Parliament the subject of genetically modified (GM) foods will again be raised. Having recently been on a political lecture tour in mainland Europe it is also clear that the current unease of many European leaders towards American foreign policy will have a profound on the GM debate.
I have always found the controversy on GM foods to be full of discrepancies. At the same time as we in this country have a strong
passion for animal rights and whilst vegetarianism becomes ever more popular, there is clearly a need for food to be grown with ever more efficiency, especially in the developing world. As the global population continues to increase rapidly year by year, you might think that the solution would be to use the technology which is behind genetically modified food, especially in seeking to eliminate the scourge of global famine and malnutrition in developing countries. Yet when in the late 1990s GM food technology came to the fore there was a furious reaction from consumer groups and governments alike.
We are no longer so ready to believe the assurances of medical experts who claimed that this new food was safe. However much science suggests that we have found solutions to problems no politician can ignore the strong emotional forces. I am sure I share the view of many who feel an instinctive unease at the prospect of meddling with nature. Also I wonder whether – both in this country and in the rest of Europe – the notion that GM foods were being produced by large American companies plays some part in the hostility that surrounds GM.
This aspect of the GM foods debate became evident to me when I was out in Germany on a lecture tour in February. Many in continental Europe regard the United States of America with great suspicion. Not only is America the sole world economic superpower (Europe is so far behind that should a second economic superpower emerge it is more likely to be China) but it is also the only military superpower as well as cultural superpower courtesy of both the English language and the dominance of US film and TV across the globe.
There is also a profound unease across mainland Europe concerning the Americans’ pre-eminence and this has led to a deep-seated resentment, perhaps even an envy of the Americans’ power, its wealth and the dominance of its values in culture. The onset of the Iraq conflict has further exacerbated the uneasy relationship between the USA and many European governments.
On top of this the rise of genetically modified foods provides many in Europe with a sense that the United States is now attempting to control what and how the world eats. This concern coupled with a sometimes hysterical environmental lobby has overridden the assurances of scientists as well as a desirable famine-free vision for the future in our analysis of the desirability of GM foods.
If this planet is to house billions more people, as most population projections suggest is likely in the decades ahead, and if a larger proportion of mankind is to practise a strictly vegetarian diet then it is clear that innovative thought needs to be brought to bear on how and what we eat.
Whilst I share some of the reservations about the prospect of GM foods, I believe that we need to look at the desirability of creating this food in a reasoned and considered light without anti-US hysteria undermining any constructive debate. The welfare of millions in developing countries across the globe may depend crucially upon our putting rational science ahead of emotional instinct.