Davos essay: GM foods
January 31, 2001
The genetically modified food debate continued at Davos in such panels as "21st Century Food Fights" and "Should We Be Frightened By Food?" - but it won't end there, not by a long shot. The GM food debate is increasingly dividing public opinion - and countries. The potential of the new technology seems promising, but it's hard to know at what, if any, risk.
The debate over genetically modified (GM) organisms could look like an excuse for yet another trade battle between the US and Europe, joining the ranks of bananas and beef. The debate, however, spills far beyond bureaucrats' obscure negotiations into the realm of public opinion, food safety and environmental activism.
In Europe, concerns over GM food, together with the persistence of mad cow disease, are fueling increasing suspicion over what makes it onto dinner plates. Europe is familiar with scenes of activists trashing fields of GM crops, or trying to block ships suspected of containing GM corn or soybeans. Major food companies and supermarkets based in Europe, including Nestle and Marks and Spencer, have declared their intention to phase out the use of GM ingredients, while an increasing number of countries, from the EU area to Japan, have made labeling of GM food mandatory. That may yet convince the US - the world's leading GM food producer - to bring the issue to the WTO.
Why the fuss? Artificially inserting genes from the DNA of one organism into another is meant to produce crops which are naturally pest resistant or able to withstand herbicides. Genetic modification is also being used to enhance the nutritional qualities of rice by increasing levels of vitamin A and protein. Future applications could result in crops that are more drought tolerant.
According to GM supporters, this is great stuff. About 840m people - 13% of the global population - are facing empty plates, and malnutrition is estimated...
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