In addition to the food “riots” and double digit food inflation stories that have been in the news recently, another tempest is brewing. The high food prices are eroding resistance to genetically modified foods. This is not a new story for many of us, but I predict it will make even more headlines as the summer progresses.
The issue of why higher food prices eat away at opposition to GM food is complicated, but here are a few seeds for thought. As food prices escalate as a result of shortages or “perceived” shortages and because of commodity speculation, the huge agri-businesses reap the financial benefits. In much the same way that big oil has profited from high fuel prices, big agri-food business are profiting from high food prices. GM-free food is becoming more expensive than GM food and the big agri-businesses control the GM food market. As poor nations face paying 30% or more in higher prices for GM-free food vs. GM food, what do you think they will choose? With price differences like this, traditionally GM food opposing countries like Canada, the U.S. and even countries in Europe will face pressure to allow GM food into the mainstream.
Because of a lack of a strict labeling requirement in the U.S., most of us are eating GM foods without knowing it. WebMD used to have up a very thorough article on this where they claim that “60% to 70% of processed foods on U.S. grocery shelves” contain genetically modified ingredients. This may be yet another reason not to eat processed foods!
As I have written before, my main grievance with issues like these is our right to know what we are buying. I want to know if food I might buy contains GM ingredients. Yes, I can shop at a co-op or health food grocery and specifically look for foods that are “GMO free”, but I think that has it backwards. The burden should be on the makers of food, health, and personal care product manufacturers to disclose their ingredients.
There are arguments in favor of GM foods that can seem compelling. And, some policy makers in poor countries argue that the “elites” in wealthy countries like Canada, Europe, and, (at least until recently), the U.S. have no business lobbying against the ability of poorer countries to buy food stocks that might improve the health of their citizens.
One example of a GM food with potential to help poor countries is Bt enhanced rice. Bt rice has been genetically modified to contain genes from the soil bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis. Bt is lethal to insect larvae, including the rice stem borer, but apparently harmless to humans and other animals. Bt has been used by many organic farmers for years to control insect larvae. However, there are many who sound an alarm over the use of bt rice. Here is a Google search listing some of those.
In addition, there are many horror stories circulating about GMOs causing illness and death in animals. One that I have heard many times is listed on this Wikipedia page, and claims that thousands of sheep died after grazing on genetically modified bt cotton. I have never seen a definitive report on this incident and think it might be an “urban myth”, but it does give pause.
If GM crops can reduce agriculture’s reliance on chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides that must be a good thing, right? I am not convinced. Many feel that by allowing GM food crops to be cultivated, we are releasing a potentially dangerous unknown into the wild. It is indeed the stuff disaster movies are made of. In addition, I certainly want the knowledge and disclosure to choose to avoid GM foods. Right now we don’t have that.