By John Kerr 11/12/2016

John T Lang’s new book tackles a tough question: What’s so controversial about genetically modified food?

The answer is: It’s complicated.

What’s So Controversial about Genetically Modified Food?While far from satisfying, this conclusion isn’t a cop out. The staggering complexity of our modern food systems is a returning theme in Lang’s small treatise on genetic modification (GM) and food.

His observations and insights are certainly timely. Here in New Zealand, our current stance on genetically modified crops is increasingly questioned. A better understanding of how business, law and the public collide over this issue is more than welcome.

A sociologist by trade, Lang does an excellent job of reviewing how a handful of multinational agritech companies, patent law and international trade all jumble into an incredibly messy, globe-spanning tangle. It is a system that no one person – let alone a 180 page book – could explain in totality. But that doesn’t mean you can’t try.

The first half of the book dives right into the nitty-gritty of this mess, describing the myriad problems with a global food chain controlled by a few giant companies and a complete lack of global coherence on patents and labelling.  This builds on what seems to be Lang’s main thesis in the book, which is that genetically modified crops are not inherently bad, but have become the lightning rod for criticism of global agribusiness juggernauts (much of which is deserved).

The author openly acknowledges his fence-sitting neutrality, explaining that a decade of research hasn’t convinced him that GM foods present any kind of harm to human health. But he holds strong reservations about their use by corporations to enable ‘scientific hegemony’ enforced by patents. And if GMOs are not bad for the environment, the farming practices likely to come with them could be.

Risks and benefits

The latter part of the book tackles the scientific and public debate over GM food. This is where the book wrestles more closely with its titular riddle: Why is genetically modified food so controversial? People care immensely about food; what we put into our bodies for sustenance is imbued with all sorts of social, cultural and religious meaning.  For consumers, the unfamiliarity and uncertainty present in the GM debate can understandably lead to controversy.

Golden rice featured on the cover of TIME in 2000. A decade and half later, it is still 'in development'.
Golden rice featured on the cover of TIME in 2000. A decade and half later, it is still ‘in development’.

Here a bit of history sets the scene of where GM enters the public consciousness. The book touches on a number of case studies, well known to anyone with a stake in the GM food debate, such as the Pusztai affair and the Seralini affair. Lang does offer a little sympathy for these scientists, acknowledging the difficultly of challenging the scientific orthodoxy on GM food. But he also notes the potential for bias arising from values-driven research actively seeking to prove ‘GMOs are bad’.

The status quo doesn’t get off lightly either. Assuming GM food is safe there is still the question of cui bono? – who benefits? If GM crops are fine, surely we should have reaped the benefits by now? Here Lang points out that the vitamin-A enriched Golden Rice – the poster-boy of the agricultural GM revolution – has been in existence for more than fifteen years. However, due to a tangle of patent and legal issues the crop remains notably absent from farms.  GM crops are made to profit companies, explains Lang, not necessarily to make agriculture better or more equitable.

No man’s land

Some of the best insights from the book come at the end where Lang looks to the future. Comparing GM food with nuclear energy, the author gives a sensible framework for what the next few years could bring. Despite a number of colossal systemic failings (for example Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima) and immense public backlash, it seems nuclear power is here to stay for the time being. Lang suggests that GM food will also enter this uneasy space, occupying the no man’s land between total public acceptance and rejection.

But for Lang at least, GM is a red herring. The problems are much more deeply ingrained in the way our food is grown, processed and marketed. The UN estimates that we will need to increase food production by 60 percent to meet the needs of the projected 9 billion people inhabiting earth in 2050.  Even if GM crops were to fulfil their promise, we are still going to need more solutions to stave off world hunger.

The book does offer a positive reflection on all this controversy, drawing on the grizzled wisdom of one of my personal favourite authors:

Although some of the tension in global agriculture may not be necessary and much of it may not be polite, it can be creative. As Hunter S. Thompson wrote, ‘It was the tension between these two poles – between a restless idealism on the one hand and a sense of impending doom on the other – that kept me going.’ We too, can use this continuing tension between restless idealism and a sense impending doom to keep us all searching for better solutions to our global agricultural system.

All up, if you open this book with a strong view on either side of the GM food debate, you will probably close it with a softer, but hopefully more informed stance.

Suffice to say, it’s complicated.

What’s So Controversial about Genetically Modified Food?
Reaktion Books

Credit: SEO Elements website.

0 Responses to “Book review: What’s so controversial about genetically modified food?”

  • Nice review of a book that draws the same conclusions, essentially, as the RCGM in 2001. The GM food won’t hurt you, but the companies who control its use and sale sure can hurt the planet.