More serious concern on food safety

The UK Government has made a priority of what it calls ‘food security’. Superficially this is a reasonable concern. It is though, in its prioritising, strangely inconsistent as a sole matter for concern in a situation where the UK has no ‘water security’ or ‘energy security’.

Almost all of the country’s major utilities are owned by foreign companies. These have no loyalty to any nation, only to profit margins.  Yet they have been given room to ‘own’ our  resources and to sell these elsewhere as they will.

With climate change, food security is, of course, an issue as, for the same reason, is water security.

However it would be naive to accept at face value the UK Government’s determination to pursue certain scientific developments in food production in the name of protecting food security.

So called ‘food security’ is primarily much less about ensuring supply to the consumer than it is about securing for retailers a reliable and cheap supply which will copper-fasten profit margins. The issue is being driven by energetic lobbying and political donations, not by philanthropists, but by owners and managers of major supermarket chains. Think on.

It is unlikely to be coincidental that a very major donor to the Labour Party, Lord Sainsbury of the supermarket chain family, was made an unelected Minister for Food by – of course, Tony Blair – and incessanty promoted the growing of  genetically modified (GM) food. Do you really such people care about you?

The two big issues in food technology today are genetic modification (GM) and nanotechnology. Such developments benefit dangerously from the tendencey most of us have to yawn and think about something else at the very mention of words like ‘ technology’, ‘nanotechnology’, ‘science’ and ‘genetics’.

These subjects are inevitably beyond the competence of almost all of us to understand properly, so, beyond our ken, we prefer not to think about them and just hope it all works out OK. This helpless public reaction is, of course factored in by those who aim for the mass introduction of foods produced in these ways. They want to make a lot of money quickly from immature scientific development at the risk of the majority who have no option but to buy cheap food.

Some foods are already almost beyond decontamination from genetic modification. One such is soya. Some fruits and vegatables on general sale have also been modified – like tomatoes. And how many of us have bitten into a supermarket grape and thought that, ii some cases, the inner texture of the grape is not formed as it used to be?

Genetic modification is the introduction of genes from a completely different species – such as, for instance, the already effected introduction to the innocent looking tomato of genes from fish – to produce a strain that is more disease resistant and crops more heavily.

The bare fact is that this technical achievement remains without the necessary depth of scientific investigation to discover the risks that have to be associated with genetic enginering at this level. It is impossible that so major an intervention in the genetics of species will have no conseqences. It is foolish to assume – or to be persuaded – that such consequences, as yet far from fully known, will be nothing other than benign.

Nanotechnology is the introduction into everyday things like, for example, foods, face creams and cosmetics, of microscopic – or nano – particles so small they penetrate the structures of virtually anything.  In food, they penetrate the vital organs like the brain, liver and kidneys. In face creams and cosmetics they penetrate the body through the skin.

The consequences of their introduction to our deeper and most vital systems are unknown.

The advantage they have for food manufacturers and retailers is that, like anything round, they may be tiny but they have a relatively large surface area where, in this case, chemical reactions take place.

In practice, for example, this means that a small  number of sugar nanoparticles in food products will produce the taste of the volume of sugar consumers expect.

Naturally the front line defence of this is the contribution made to fighting obesity. But the bottom line is the dollar. It always is. Such foods need less natural materials so they cost a lot less to produce while the retail price remains unchanged. Profit margins rule.

Foods contaminated by genetic modification and nanotechology have been progressively, often covertly, introduced into our supply chains. A House of Lords inquiry chaired by Lord Krebs says that it believes that there will be no Government requirement for the presence of nanoparticles in food to be made known to the consumer.

This Science and Technology Committee enquiring into the safety of nanotechnology in food says that, while there is as yet no evidence that such foods are harmful, there are ‘large gaps’ in our knowledge.

The Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government, Professor John Bedington, has just unveiled a new nationwide UK Strategy for Food Research and Innovation aiming to provide evidence to support the development of new food technologies. This is designed to make it possible for all of the devolved adminstrations to accept a single food development policy nationwide. It impedes the anti-Genetic Modification stance of the Scottish Government by seeking to impose a common policy led by London.

However it is a matter of some concern for Scotland that Rural Affairs & Fisheries Secretary, Richard Lochhead, already – as our Environment Editor has shown – failing adequately to balance environmental protection with the needs of commercial fishing, is becoming increasingly pragmatic on the subject of hi tech-foods.

It is important to note that Professor Bedington’s aim is ‘to provide evidence to support the development of new food technologies’. This is skewed science. It is a very long way from offering proper scientific procedure. An objective investigation into the impact on the food chain and on the human vital systems of such technologies would produce a variety of results, some of which would and some would not be seen as supportive of developing such technologies.

It is also important to remember that GM and nanotechnology are no more than two current developments we know about. There are others which remain undisclosed. The House of Lords inquiry has criticised the UK’s food industry for unnecessary secrecy about the foods it has in the pipeline. Game on.

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