Almost a thousand years ago King Canute had his throne placed on an English beach and commanded the advancing tide to retreat in order to demonstrate to his sycophantic courtiers how ultimately powerless he was in the face of nature. I was strongly reminded of this story when reading about the results of a recent survey by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). This concerned reported incidents of low-level GMO contamination in food and feed shipments and found no less than 193 recorded between 2002 and 2012. Significantly, 138 of those occurred in the last three years of that period, almost certainly a consequence of increasing GM crop cultivation around the world and of more countries testing for GMOs in the food shipments arriving at their borders.
In countries where GM crops are grown widely, such as the USA, China, Canada and Brazil, production has been increasing rapidly as more and more land is devoted to GMO cultivation. Meanwhile, in Europe especially, we remain largely opposed to GM crops and to GMO contamination in the foods we eat. This resistance to a technology that many see as the solution to feeding a growing population in the future perhaps has more to do with the very idea of GM crops rather than any conclusively proven food safety problems. But even without going into the arguments for and against GM foods, it presents European countries with a serious practical problem. As more and more food commodities include a significant proportion of GM varieties, how can they continue to exclude them from the food supply?
We hear an awful lot about the global nature of the modern food industry and how its supply chains now extend across continents, and for many food commodities that is indeed the case. If European consumers want cheap food that is available all year round, then much of it has to be imported from far away places. For instance, the FAO survey found that one of the most likely foods to contain traces of GMOs was rice. We eat a lot of rice here in the UK, but even with the effects of global warming very little of it is ever going to be produced within our own borders. As much of the rest of the world enthusiastically embraces the apparent benefits of GM crops, trying to keep them out of Europe will likely become as futile as Canute’s attempt to control the sea.