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Letter From Elsewhere: Sky Pie - Pigs Might Fly

Letter From Elsewhere

Sky Pie: Pigs Might Fly

“$50 gift voucher” said the piece of cardboard. I was suspicious, but after I read it twice I was convinced it was genuine. Because we hold a certain charge card, a certain well-known chain of department stores would give us $50 worth of goods free. All we had to do was take that voucher in.

I should have known better. A few days later we got a groveling letter of apology from the twits who had thought up the idea. It was not a genuine gift voucher, they told us. It was just meant to show us what a genuine gift voucher would look like (if we ever managed to qualify for one, by spending, say, three trillion dollars in two weeks). But it had obviously fooled a large enough number of angry people to make that letter necessary.

The Royal Commission on Genetic Modification has been similarly taken in by worthless cardboard promises of future free gifts. It has swallowed, hook, line and sinker, every pie-in-the-sky, pigs-might-fly promise held out by those with a vested interest in getting the go-ahead for GM in New Zealand.

“It would be unwise to turn our back [that is, New Zealand’s back, not theirs] on the potential advantages on offer”, it says, sounding just like a bedazzled consumer, nose eagerly pressed up against the screen, fingers itching to write that cheque, while the infomercials parade their dazzling display of amazing new products, guaranteed to solve every past, present and future problem, from too much flab to too little income.

Not only does it really believe that genetic modification can make our trees grow faster, our food healthier, our healthcare more cost efficient and our crops more pest resistant, long lasting and palatable. It also seems never to have stopped to ask what, if anything, is actually wrong with the trees, food, healthcare and crops we have now, or, more to the point, with what we do with them. It certainly has not asked whether genetic modification has or can ever have anything to do with solving our real problems.

Take the “healthier food” claim, for example. We produce plenty of healthy food already – certainly a great deal more than the USA, the home base of the GM lobby. For a stomach-churning picture of what “scientific advances” have already done for the US beef industry, read My Year of Meat. The animals get antibiotics “for their health”. If they didn’t, the vile conditions on the feedlots would kill them. For a hilarious but scary description of the appalling garbage masquerading as food on US supermarket shelves, from pop-tarts to breakfast pizzas, read Bill Bryson’s Notes on a Big Country. What he doesn’t go into is how the food industry has managed to turn what was once undoubtedly real food into this junk – all in the name of making it “more pest resistant, long lasting and palatable”. [Here’s a basic rule of thumb: if it’s wet but it doesn’t go off in the fridge, don’t eat it, it’s bad for you.]

The problem is not a shortage of healthy food – not here, and not in the Third World either. The problem is how to get healthy food into people’s hands and mouths, despite the army of powerful forces dedicated to stopping that happening.

In the USA, one third of all the food used is wasted. In Thailand, farming cheap prawns for Europe displaces rural families and poisons the land for decades. In Africa, multinationals peddle powdered milk to mothers too poor to use it safely. In New Zealand, Coke is now cheaper than milk. How can genetic modification fix that? By changing cow’s genes to produce fizzy brown milk with added calcium and vitamins? Or by inserting an extra compassion and concern gene into Coke’s chief executives, so they start worrying about what their product is doing to children’s growth and development?

The promise makers think the glorious future benefits of genetic modification clearly outweigh any possible future dangers. The Royal Commission appears to agree with them. Nearly 70 percent of written submissions raised concerns about the safety of genetically modified food. But these concerns were more or less blithely dismissed by the Commission: all food contained dna, it said, and the human body was designed to deal with that. Oh, it did recommend “more study” and we should of course “proceed carefully, minimising and managing risks”. And the food industry must be subject to rigorous standards enforced and monitored by competent and careful regulatory bodies. Presumably these would be the same sorts of competent and careful bodies as the ones we have now – bodies that have so signally failed to know what was going on that, according to the Commission, GM food may already have been on the New Zealand market for a decade.

Oh, it’s a brave new world out there, and the Royal Commission can’t wait to lead us into it. But going by past experience, it’s inevitable that sooner or later, a follow-up letter will arrive. It will inform us that the scientists never meant us to take their promises seriously. They were just trying to show us what genetic modification might bring. It’s not their fault that we thought they were telling the truth – not just about the surefire benefits, but about the minimal risks. We should have known better. But by then, sadly, it will be much too late.


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