I thought I knew how to differentiate between GM and non-GM food but Andy Rees’s new book, ‘Genetically Modified Food: a Short Guide for the Confused,’ has made me question more than ever what I put in my basket. GM is creeping into the food chain, and the way in which our diet is being hijacked by corporate America reads like a horror story.
Biotechnology, according to the definition drawn up by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, is ‘any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use.’ A farmer’s son who trained in agriculture, Andy has long been suspicious of this technology. “Once I started to look into it I was horrified by the attitude of the biotech lobby. I was shocked by the lack of a sense of responsibility from these huge corporations, and I realised that people haven’t got a clue about what’s going on,” he tells me. “A lot of this information isn’t in the papers. It ought to be emblazoned on every front page in big letters.”
Just days before I interviewed Andy, the former editor of GM Watch and author of The Pocket Green Book, it was announced that the Food Standards Authority (FSA) was facing a legal challenge from Friends of the Earth over allegations that it failed to take sufficient precautions to stop GM rice entering the food chain. The FSA, responsible for policing the food system, admit that there has been no official state testing regime to prevent GM contamination of food imports in the UK.
“It’s all about challenging people’s complacency,” says Andy. “People have shown that when they know about GM that they are whole-heartedly against it, and yet here we are with GM becoming more widespread. I wanted to know how difficult was it to come up with some of the facts and figures, especially in an industry where millions of dollars are spent each year to cover up bad news stories.”
That’s where working for GM Watch (www.gmwatch.org) came in. “Jonathan Matthews, the founder, does a fantastic, unpaid job collating this information, and he deserves a big ‘thank you’ from everyone,” says Andy. “For me it was just a question of collating this mass of information against the biotech industry and then boiling it down.”
Andy’s book is damning in its appraisal of some of the world’s biggest corporations, and of the way they have foisted GM onto us with little care. Is it really all down to profit or is there any truth in the argument that GM could potentially help feed the world’s poor? Andy dismisses this: “The biotech lobby have made an enormous number of claims about GM crops; many of which are complete lies. One of the things that really get’s me angry is the lie that GM food could feed the world’s poor. That’s just emotional blackmail. There’s no shortage of food; people go hungry because of poverty. The patenting of seeds means that farmers have to pay for them every year rather than saving them, and that’s going to bring them more poverty. GM yields are normally no higher, and often lower, than non-GM, so how will that feed the poor? It only feeds the shareholders. Thousands of farmers in India have been displaced or driven into poverty largely due to the failure of GM cotton.”
One worry is that GM material is finding its way into our diet through such things as animal feed, so what can we do to make sure our food is GM free? “Eat organically,” Andy says. “Otherwise you can be almost 100 per cent certain that you are eating GM material. Non-organic animal produce is most likely to be from GM-fed animals due to a loophole in European labelling (which does not require GM ingredients in animal feed to be labelled). You have to avoid any non-organic meat, fish, dairy or eggs. Avoid GM derivatives, and if you want to be a purist avoid all soy, maize, rapeseed and US and Chinese rice.
“The biotech lobby is extremely wealthy,” says Andy. “They spend half a billion dollars a year promoting their food, enough to build 10 hospitals! They get disproportionate access to the media and they keep funding their version of the truth. The industry has schmoozed the US administration to pass this bit of pseudo-science; it’s outrageous. They tell of hundreds of tests, but there’s only been one tiny test on humans. It’s just nonsense.
“There is no future for GM if consumers have anything to do with it. 86 per cent of people in the UK don’t want it but people need to protest; that’s the only way we’re going to stop this. Groups like GM Watch, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are doing a great job, and we really need them doing their stuff.”
‘Genetically Modified Food: A Short Guide for the Confused’ by Andy Rees is published by Pluto Press, £12.99. www.plutobooks.com.
First published issue 47 (Winter 2006)
Written by Darryl Bullock
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