You’ve more than likely heard hundreds of scare stories about GM foods in the UK. From Netflix documentaries, to social media stars, the ‘wonders’ of organic produce have altered our understanding of what ‘healthy food’ is.
Despite all the fanfare, most of the science behind the arguments against genetically modified foods (GM) are false. You could suggest that it is the failure of science over previous decades that the public has yet to be convinced of the potential benefits of GM crops in the UK. Science very rarely enters the PR debate or communicates their benefits on social media.
Thankfully, however, some people are starting to understand that GM foods aren’t all bad. Environmentalist Mark Lynas, who once destroyed GM crops, now states that refusing to accept GM food is safe is as bad as climate change denial.
The current state of GM food in the UK
The UK Royal Society, The European Academies Sciences Advisory Council and the US National Academy of Sciences all agree that GMOs are as safe as any other. So why are there still so many proponents, even ideologues of organic-only lifestyles?
The most significant argument is that organic foods are natural. This isn’t the case. We have been modifying crops through cross-breeding for thousands of years. That banana you’ve just eaten on your lunch break wouldn’t be so tasty without modification — in their natural state they are seeded and inedible. So why would we be concerned with genetic modification that’s done in a lab environment? With more control comes less risk, and more benefits.
Virtually all of the food we eat in the UK is not genetically modified. Most of the GM produce we do eat comes through the soy and maize that is fed to the animals we eat. You’d struggle to find a true GM product on your supermarket shelves. And the food that is GM legally has to be labelled as such — even in products such as cooking oils and flour.
With Brexit, there has been panic that GM foods may find their way onto our plates, particularly with a big potential trade deal the US. In 2017, Michael Gove even came out to say that GM crops would still be banned in the UK post-Brexit. But rather than giving in to panic, we should be embracing the science and technology behind GM foods.
The benefits of GM food
Across the world, genetically engineering foods can have a positive impact on people’s health. And the latest generation of GM foods could revolutionise the food that we eat. Not only will these foods improve the flavour and appearance of our food, they will come with added health benefits too.
The Innate potato — a GM crop — produces less acrylamide when cooked, a chemical that is suspected to cause cancer. It is also less prone to bruising and black spots, so you would be able to have a healthier, long-lasting potato tucked away in your kitchen cupboards. The Innate potato has already gone on sale in the US, but unless we change our attitude to GM foods in the UK, we’re unlikely to see it over here anytime soon.
The same can be said of Arctic apples, a GM strain that doesn’t discolour and turn brown. Obviously, this is about appearances. But it could make our eating experience more pleasurable. Genetically modified pink pineapples would be the star of social media if they eventually went on sale (they have already been approved for sale in the US) — with the health benefits associated with added lycopene.
Beyond fruit and vegetables, science is developing more beneficial staple foods. Rice that is modified to reduce vitamin A deficiency, gene-edited white flour with three times as much dietary fibre, and wheat without the proteins that cause people with coeliac disease such discomfort, are all GM products that have been scientifically tested and developed — though few have gone to market at the time of writing.
Is GM food unsafe?
As with all new breakthroughs in science, we should be wary of jumping on any bandwagon. But the scientific evidence suggests that on the whole, GM foods are not only as safe as their organic namesakes, but also potentially beneficial for us.
When a new iPhone comes onto the market, we don’t discount its new features just because we’ve not experienced or used them before. Our current approach to GM foods does not consider science, or embrace the new technologies behind it.
Instead of giving in to public pressure — fed by false science — authorities should be examining and persuading people of the benefits of having GM foods in the UK. The future of food is upon us. Whether it be lab grown meat, or the latest batch of GM foods, the technology will not only be beneficial for the environment, it could help us live longer, eating what we want along the way — without the negative health impacts.
If we fail to embrace these developments in the UK, we will be losing out on some of the greatest science and technology achievements of the past few years. Ultimately, it is time for us to embrace genetically modified food in the UK.
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