For most of us, it’s likely that it was at most only a few hours ago that we had a meal, and if we’re lucky we have three of them a day. But how many of us have even momentarily paused to consider how the food that we consume comes to be before us? Where is the food made, who makes it, and perhaps more importantly - how is it made?
If you’re like most people, you probably don’t give it so much as a fleeting thought; and there’s good reason for that. As a society, we have developed a powerful bond of trust with those who produce our food. Trust in our food producers is all powerful but delicate; and understandably so.
With the exception of air and water, human life cannot be sustained without it. Since time immemorial, farmers have traditionally been entrusted with the responsibility of producing clean, safe and nutritious food. We rely on their knowledge of the land, the soil and the growing cycles to produce the amazing cornucopia of food we enjoy today.
Of all their qualities, most importantly we rely on their intimate understanding of that tiny natural microcosm from which all our food derives - the seed. It is the seed that sustains all human life and in that respect, farmers have been the guardians of our food heritage, participating in a symbiotic relationship with consumers that has sustained societies worldwide since the development of agriculture over 10,000 years ago.
In the modern industrialised food system of today, our trust is increasingly stretched out along a complex chain of farmers, agribusiness interests, buyers, transport companies, processors and retailers. Despite this huge paradigm shift in the way we eat, our trust in food is sustained so long as we know that farmers are the first link in the chain. All our food starts with them.
Now a new technology is out to re-write that relationship - genetic modification (GM). GM food is a radically different food technology. For the first time ever, scientists and their big business backers are able to directly manipulate the fundamental genetic building blocks of life - a organism’s genome and its constituent gene components.
GM technology allows for the insertion of a gene (or genes) from one species into possibly another totally unrelated species. Biotech proponents portray GM as being the next in a continuum of technologies from traditional plant breeding through to GM, designed to impart a reassuring sense of naturalness and progression.
In reality, GM is a radical departure from traditional plant breeding. Traditional plant breeding is restricted to a closed pool of genes from which new varieties are developed according to the laws of nature. Grasses cross with grasses, fruits cross with fruits, corn with other varieties of corn. Natural species boundaries would dictate the limits of breeding. Fish cannot be crossed with strawberries but in the GM world, this is not only possible but has actually been achieved. Soil bacteria genes have been inserted into corn, human genes into tobacco, and genes have been inserted into plants to confer herbicide resistance.
Like all genes, these foreign genes express proteins - proteins that have never before been part of the human food supply. Such a radical technology demanded that questions of safety be addressed and forced us to reassess the producer-consumer bond of trust. In a genetically modified world, consumers are coming to the realisation that food increasingly arrives not from “farm to fork” but “biotech lab to fork”. In a GM world, food starts its journey in a petri dish.
Why the biotech drive to develop GM seeds? Not content with control of the fertiliser and pesticides market, chemical companies morphed into “life sciences” companies and set their sights on extending their corporate reach by securing control of the genesis of life - the seed.
By redefining traditional patent law to include living organisms, the self-organising, self replicating machinery of nature became private property. This new intellectual property rights (IPR) regime redefined life in terms of its economic value. Genes were excluded from their social and environmental contexts and thousands of years of indigenous knowledge were discarded. Genes were no longer classified as inherently natural and part of the intellectual commons of mankind, but rather were reduced to entities; units of information that can be precisely counted, added or subtracted, altered, switched on or off - and owned.
With ownership came the ability to sell to the highest bidder. Life has been reduced to a commodity to be traded in accordance with the laws of a neoliberal free-market economic framework.
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