The Food We Eat


A challenge from Darina Allen on the integrity of Irish food is one that the US company, Monsanto, may find difficult to overcome. She more than most captures "the goodness of Irish food" and she has now articulated the concerns of so many consumers about genetically modified food. They can readily identify with her view that "the repercussions of fiddling around with genes" in the food chain have not been sufficiently researched. They perceive a rush to production of genetically modified crops without an adequate safety net. One of 10 new Irish locations where genetically modified beet is grown may soon be only a matter of yards from Ms Allen's famous Ballymaloe Cookery School and its gardens.

Many consumers do not believe that rendering a beet crop resistant to a herbicide, as developed by Monsanto, is necessarily in their interest. Equally, the science - remarkable and powerful as it may be - is not as defining for them as the large multinationals, who are promoting this technology, would like us to believe. It has such ramifications that even independent evaluation, such as the exhaustive process undertaken by the Environmental Protection Agency (which deemed it safe), is slow to be accepted.

People are not reassured about foods with genes added to them to make them fulfil a role nature did not design for them in the first instance, even allowing for natural mutation. Such foods seem to be produced in the multinational's interest and, maybe to a lesser extent, that of the farmer. Consumer reluctance, to begin with, is a reflection of poor communication by a £250 billion industry. The biotechnology sector within Europe has compounded the problem by adopting a siege mentality; attempting to be unduly "soft" in its use of language in introducing what is amazing but bewildering technology, and hence worrying for many. Most damning of all in the European context is their adoption of a hopelessly inadequate attitude to labelling of genetically modified foodstuffs. Suspicions have been compounded by the indecisive, if not evasive, stance of the European Commission, gripped by concern that strict EU demands on labelling could lead to a damaging trade war with the US. The compromise, as it stands, suggests capitulation to those gearing-up for a massive targeting of European markets with modified foods.

People want information, they demand choice. But inability to make a distinction when it comes to the hundreds of soya-containing products on supermarket shelves is not the easy way to gaining acceptance, even if the modified form is considered by scientists to be safe and not substantially different from the unmodified form. Within the Irish context, the posturing of the Minister for the Environment, Mr Dempsey, has done little other than feed consumer suspicion. He unreservedly backed "full disclosure labelling" in opposition, had it enshrined in Fianna Fail policy, yet its introduction does not appear even remotely on the horizon. What message is that for a doubting consumer? Given that the new Food Safety Authority of Ireland was established with a remit to reassure consumers of the safety of food, the issue of genetically modified foods should come under its focus. With one of its board members having such serious reservations, it could begin by providing answers to her concerns. In doing so, it will have served the public's interest.