Niall produces food for thought

Belying its dry-as-dust name, the City Food Lecture, given last week at London’s Guildhall, proved a surprisingly riveting affair. Not because it was packed with luminaries from the food industry, such as Sainsbury’s Sir Peter Davis – although it was. But because of a far from academic interest in some of its content, together with the eminent status of the man delivering it: Niall FitzGerald, chairman of Unilever, one of the world’s largest food companies.

Taken as a whole, the lecture was circumspect. It looked at a variety of problems facing the food industry, acknowledged resistance to further intensive farming, praised aspects of organic farming while also pointing out its costly and inefficient limitations; and called for a more ‘sustainable’ third way forward. What caused the excitement was FitzGerald’s juxtaposition of all this with a seemingly artless call for the debate on genetically modified foods to be reopened.

Where, as one enraged environmentalist asked, had he been for the past two years – on another planet? Wasn’t GM dead and buried as an issue? Not in the minds of the food producers, it would seem – and they hold high hopes that, sensitively handled, it can still be sold to consumers.

From where does this confidence and resolution spring? The tenor of FitzGerald’s speech suggests he regards GM food as a technical, communications problem. Yes, he admits, the food industry did thoroughly misjudge consumer suspicions of GM food; what Unilever and others now need to do is exploit their knowledge of consumer culture to communicate the benefits in a non-threatening and easy-to-understand way. Once these are better understood, runs the argument, the scare-mongering pseudo-scientific hysteria will subside, leading to general acceptance.

And what are these benefits? Lower production costs, some of which can be passed on to the consumer, are clearly one – and not merely in this country: there is the whole of the underdeveloped world (in which Unilever and other global food players have an acute interest) to be considered. But critics, such as Friends of the Earth, discern an additional, more cynical agenda. GM, if it were publicly acceptable, would greatly facilitate the development of margin-rich functional foods, with their life-enhancing promise.

Whatever the food industry’s actual agenda, it remains to be seen how it can constructively advance the cause of GM. Concerns about the impact of genetic engineering on biodiversity won’t disappear simply because the Government has decided to broaden GM crop trials over the next few years. Nor will the public’s reluctance to ingest something that could have an unknown long-term impact on the human body. Rather than a frontal assault on these deeply held convictions (or prejudices, depending on your point of view), the food industry might do well to heed the advice of Professor Vivian Moses. The way forward, he suggests, is to avoid food in the first instance. Concentrate instead on modifying products that are not actually ingested, such as genetically engineered cotton clothes; then, once these have gained acceptance, follow them up with food products – preferably ones with medicinal properties.

While not exactly addressing the biodiversity issue, these tactics certainly have more to recommend them than those used in the past. Whether the food industry has the patience to embrace them remains to be seen.

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