Wednesday, 5 March 2008

The Return Of Franken-Food

This interesting map was in a recent issue of The Economist. The article was examining European resistance to genetically modified food. It would appear that, despite a contrary ruling by the WTO and assurances of the safety of GM food, the EU continues to obstruct the sale of GM foods in Europe. Although some countries in Europe have adopted GM technology, the amount under production is not significant.

The basis for European resistance to GM food is the ‘precautionary principle’. This is a view that the developers of new technologies must demonstrate that they are safe before they can be widely adopted. Whilst this is a prudent view, it is, at times, not very practicable. A core part of the scientific method is the falsification of hypotheses, which rubs against the precautionary principle. In the case of GM foods, from a scientific standpoint, we cannot say that they are safe. We can only say that there is no evidence that they are unsafe.

Within this lies a certain amount of muddled thinking. GM foods can be found in Europe in two areas. First, processed livestock feeds from outside of the EU, which are imported into the EU, enter the European food chain via the livestock that they feed. Second, processed foods imported into the EU, which are processed outside of the EU and sold directly to the consumer in Europe cannot be verified as ‘GM Free’ unless GM foods are isolated in the market, which they are generally not. Additionally, when Europeans travel abroad, they eat locally produced food which may well have GM content.

This issue is coming to a head as the prices of all foods are rising. Interestingly enough, the local BBC station carried an item (play item) on how pig farmers are losing £25 per pig at present, as consumer prices are rising a lot slower than the cost of livestock feeds are rising. Of course, this is not sustainable into the longer term. A number of pig farmers will go out of business, and eventually, the price of pig related products will increase to restore stability in the market.

This, however, is an interesting point for those of us with a future focus. Globalisation and the development of the BRIC economies are forcing up food prices across the globe. This applies not only to base foods, such as grains, but derived foods, such as meat, as well. A rise in base food prices, according to traditional economics, will encourage the development of technologies that increase the resource efficiency in producing those foods. From any given unit of land, from any given unit of water, we will expect a higher yield in terms of crops produced. This is what GM technology is delivering and is what the EU is trying to hold back.

In the longer term, Europe faces a choice. It can retain the precautionary principle, with the resultant higher price levels of foods. Or it can accept the GM technology, to the benefit of the consumer in Europe who will pay lower prices for their food. The article in The Economist suggests that the precautionary principle may be compromised simply because it is so difficult to police. If so, this provides a good example of the inability of regulators to hold back technological advances when there are significant consumer benefits from adopting them.

Perhaps it is significant that King Canute – the man who tried to hold back the tide – was a European.

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