Book Summary - What's so controversial about genetically modified food?

November 06, 2019

As it is stated in the title, the book, “What’s so controversial about genetically modified food?” written by John T Lang, is about the controversies that arise with regards to genetically modified food. The author attempts to inform the readers about such controversies in a narrative style and separates his claims in 5 different chapters. But before going into the details of specific chapters, John T Lang discusses what genetically modified food is in the first place and he explains the general pros and cons of the topic.

John T Lang states that “Scientists are generally pursuing the same goal - to introduce new genetic characteristics to an organism to increase its usefulness”. This essentially means that scientists alter the genes of an organism or even combine certain genes from different organisms to maximize those individual features. As a result, it often introduces a novel characteristic or produces a new enzyme or protein. Upon genetically modified food, there are two sides: those who support it and believe that it will benefit the food industry, and those who think that genetically modified food is complete nonsense and revolutionary.

There are many reasons why genetically modified food is supported: resistance to insects, tolerance to herbicides, tolerance for heat, cold or drought, and increase crop yield. In comparison to the ‘normal’ foods, genetically modified food (for example, crops) obtain a new characteristic or develop a peculiar feature which often gives an advantage for them to survive in the environment (or simply just fit in with the environment better). In terms of these advantages, we can suggest that individuals who benefit the most from this are farmers.

While there are many positive effects from genetically modified food, some people worry that these foods may be linked to allergies, antibiotic resistance or cancer. In John T Lang’s book, he mentioned that genetically modified food can indeed solve numerous agricultural problems, such as pest and disease resistance, but it will need to satisfy some requirements. For example, many consumers have argued and insisted that it is important for genetically modified food to be labelled. John T Lang states that it “is part and parcel of their right to know what they are eating or drinking and their right to choose what foods to consume based on that knowledge.” This is essentially correct and ethically right since the consumers do need to be aware of what they are purchasing and eating. It is important since the consumers may have unknown allergies for the GM food and hence, would be dangerous if they consumed it without knowing it. Besides, it is simply proper to provide product information to allow consumers to give their consent and choice to purchase it. Some may think that labelling genetically modified food would be more costly than ‘normal’ foods, however, John T Lang informs us that “Any form of labelling, whether for GM or non-GM products, will lead to additional monetary costs.” Hence, it is only reasonable for GM product companies to label their products as it will reduce the consumers’ concerns.

Many GM product companies believe that they can solve agricultural problems like pest and disease resistance. However, John T Lang introduces the fact that this will only lead to bigger “problems across national borders.” There are many regulations for GM planting: Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency and Labelling of GMOs. John T Lang expresses his concerns that if rich states or nations impose strict controls and regulations over the planting of GM crops, consequently these crops would be relocated to somewhere with weaker regulations. Essentially, this doesn’t solve agricultural problems as much since it only shifts these potential risks onto another group of people. This means that the benefits a community obtains from GM crops are only acquired from the expense of another community.

In general, there are numerous controversies that John T Lang discusses in his book. I find the controversy about the mandatory labelling of GM products the most interesting as I believe that this is an important requirement that GM companies should attempt in satisfying. When consumers choose and purchase a product, they are essentially giving their consent and trust to the company of the product. If certain GM foods are not labelled as “GM food”, this would mean that the consumers didn’t give their full consent and hence, going against the ethical guidelines. It is important that the consumers have their rights of what to choose and purchase, giving their 100% full consent.