Inglorious Food

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Review of ’Don‘t Worry, It‘s Safe to Eat‘ by Andrew Rowell, Earthscan £16.99

Genetically modified (GM) crops are once again in the headlines. The government is due to announce whether commercial growth of GM crops will be permitted. Given Blair‘s current unpopularity, the report is likely to be a fudge, neither allowing unlimited planting, nor closing the door forever. The outcome was foreshadowed by the publication of the ’independent‘ GM science review in July. A group of hand-picked, tame scientists published an account which claimed that while GM is unlikely to damage our health, it may, perhaps, damage the environment.

Anyone taking an interest in food safety in this country will have a strange sense of déjà vu. Once again official scientists are reassuring us: ’Don‘t worry, it‘s safe to eat‘. In his excellent new book, Andrew Rowell tells the story of Tory and Labour governments‘ mishandling of agriculture over the last 15 years. He draws disturbing parallels between the cases of BSE (’mad cow disease‘), foot and mouth, and GM crops.

Government ministers and official scientists repeatedly told us that beef was safe to eat, despite the epidemic of BSE. We were told that there was no possibility of transmission to humans. Within a few short years the truth was out. So far over 100 people have died from the human disease linked to BSE. Scientists who dared to question the official government line on BSE were branded as cranks or mavericks. They were driven from their jobs or refused funding for their work.

The same sad story was played out again when it came to GM crops. Scientists who questioned the establishment line on GM have faced vilification. Rowell describes how one Mexican scientist who exposed GM contamination of native corn varieties in Mexico was hauled across town to an abandoned office block and harangued by a government official. In what could be a scene from a gangster film, the official first tried to bribe him by offering him a lucrative position on a secret scientific panel to promote GM. When this was refused the official told him how easy it would be to ’gain access‘ to his family.

Proponents of GM like to portray their opponents as anti-science Luddites standing in the way of technology that could feed the world. But, as Rowell demonstrates, the problem is that there hasn‘t been enough science. In the US GM food was declared ’substantially equivalent‘ to its normal counterpart, allowing the biotech companies to market their product with little or no testing.

Millions of Americans are eating the modified foods, but no substantial research is being carried out into the potential health hazards. The fact that GM food has been on sale in the US is now used as evidence that legislation should be loosened in Europe.

Rowell has put together a clear and coherent story, showing why the experience of the last 15 years has destroyed any public confidence in the pronouncements of government and official scientists on food safety. He has interviewed the major players, particularly the scientists and others who have questioned the consensus.

In telling this story Rowell also demonstrates the process by which science has become increasingly dominated by commercial concerns. He shows how the upper echelons of the science establishment are intertwined both with big business and with government. Again and again supposedly independent scientific committees are set up by governments - packed with scientists wholly or partly funded by the food or biotech industries.

Rowell finishes his book by proposing a number of reforms - to limit the power of supermarkets, to put tariffs on imports and to democratise science, among others. I don‘t agree with the specifics of all of his proposals, but in writing this book Rowell has done an excellent service for those of us who want an end to a system which puts our lives at risk, and which values profit over people and the environment.