The thought of genetically modified food, for most people, automatically produces feelings of revulsion, perhaps in some people, even visions of mutated carrots with wings and potatoes with three eyes. Fear of GM food is something which seems to be fairly ingrained in popular consciousness, but peoples reasoning for why they feel this way about GM food is often murky and confused.
Given this fear of GM food, it will be with some trepidation to many people that it has been suggested by the governments chief scientist, Sir John Beddington, that human survival may depend on the cultivation of genetically engineered crops, given the prospect of high food prices, slower food production and a general trend of increase in world population.
If we continue to avoid GM foods on moral or ethical grounds we will be hit by a much bigger moral or ethical problem: global starvation. These factors among others, such as the lower number of people globally employed in agriculture, will trigger a “perfect storm” which could see millions go hungry, or rather millions more go hungry. Beddington estimated that the world was going to need 40% more food, 30% more water and 50% more energy by the middle of the century, and although GM food would not fix the food shortage by itself, the technology was one of the major factors which could avoid catastrophe by, for example, creating pest-resistant strains. This kind of progress, of course, as Beddington pointed out, needs to be pursued thoroughly, with careful testing to ensure their quality for consumption and production impact on the environment.
I have found that if you ask most people what it is they don’t like, or trust, about GM food it is likely they will answer saying something about how unnatural it is. This is a contentious issue in itself, as the use of the term unnatural here is fairly ambiguous. There seems to be a strange gap in peoples reasoning when defining what it is for something to be unnatural. People, including myself, eat processed foods daily which would be impossible to find in a state of nature. However when they hear of a certain food being made more resistant to pests or being produced in such a way that they have a longer shelf-life, this is unacceptable and makes people suspicious of this form of food science. So to damn GM food on the grounds that it isn’t a natural means of food production seems to fall on its face.
I am not saying that I know for sure that there is no problem with GM foods. I am saying that if you are made uneasy by things such as GM food production you need to have evidence to substantiate such an inclination. As Michael Specter explains in his TED talk, the scientific method is quite rightly open to question, but it is in our own interest to not shroud ourselves in our dubious beliefs and not to just believe anecdotes or popular wisdom when the advice of experts is available.
When there are stakes as high as the prospect of global starvation, we cannot allow our poor reasoning to undermine a potential solution to the problem such as GM foods.
Intuitional Epistemology in Ethics – Matthew S. Bedke
Environmental Ethics: An Overview – Katie McShane