Reforming Our Food Culture

Reforming Our Food Culture

Steven Poole declares that ‘Western culture is eating itself stupid’. His book You Aren’t What You Eat (2012) pokes fun at the snobbery, fads and celebrity culture that attend ‘foodie’ culture.
The term ‘foodie’ emerged in the 1980s, but the idea of discussing the enjoyment of food is much older. In France it goes back to the start of the nineteenth century when it became socially acceptable to do so.
We dispense with that ‘gastronomy’: ‘the art and science of delicate eating’, at our peril. Gastronomy enjoins restraint and reflection and is ‘the common bond which unites the nations of the world’, according to Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin one of its prime movers.
A gastronomic sensibility is valuable to our health, motivating us to consume a wide range of nutrients. But there is a challenge to reconcile our enjoyment with considerations of environmental impact and our health. Exploring our pleasure should make us sensitive to those who live with insufficiency.

Stuffed and Starved

In the West we eat too much, and in the South they eat too little. Despite increasing globalization we have not addressed that contradiction. A billion are now overweight or obese in the developed world where, shamefully, 50% of food is wasted. Alas almost that number are undernourished or starving in the developing world.
It should be a straightforward matter of handing over our excess. But with the best will in the world this approach will not work: transport networks, functioning bureaucracies and peaceful conditions are all required, and dumping our surpluses removes income from Third World farmers and an incentive to innovate and improve.
Moreover, much of what gives rise to obesity in the West is connected to over-consumption of junk foods. A world cannot be fed on soft drinks. Our working class neighborhoods are often ‘food deserts’ without access to fresh, healthy and competitively-priced food. There gastronomy cannot take root.
Meanwhile in the Third World, real deserts are expanding as droughts become more prolonged and land resources mismanaged. Exponential population growth and failing states leaves much of sub-Saharan Africa in food insecurity.

The Green Revolution

The seemingly limitless supply of food we have in the West can be explained by the so-called Green Revolution which occurred in agriculture after World War II. It involved the deployment of high-yielding strains of common cereals in combination with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides derived from fossil fuels. A hectare of wheat which previously yielded two tons can now yield eight. Similar feats were achieved with other common grains.
Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug is regarded as its instigator. He and his collaborators corrected a structural deficiency in the stalk of wheat which could not support heavy grains. Previously the most fruitful plants collapsed under the weight of their own seeds before maturity. Borlaug’s group developed dwarf strains that could stand up to the weight of bulbous grains, thereby doubling yields. Today, almost every kernel of wheat consumed by man and beast is derived from Borlaug’s selective breeding.
But the resulting monocultures have increased vulnerability to disease; according to the authors Fraser and Rimas in Empires of Food: ‘Today our landscape is a lot like that of Ireland and Sri Lanka immediately before the famines. We devote much of our earth to a very small number of crops’. Borlaug strains depend on polluting and finite fossil fuel to survive.
Much of our increased yields are fed to livestock; only 20% of US corn is eaten directly by humans. The Green Revolution has made animal products affordable but the cost of maintaining this in terms of global warming and energy use is becoming apparent.
Last year’s disastrous corn harvest in America is bringing the issue into sharp focus. A choice is unfolding between maintaining the affordability of two icons of American life: the hamburger and the motor car. The livestock industry are petitioning to weaken or abolish the ‘ethanol mandate’, requirements Congress set on the use of corn as automotive fuel, on grounds that it could bring about a collapse in meat production.

Pre-domesticated Varieties

Research conducted by Unilever may have revealed the nutrition of the future. Many pre-domesticated varieties of plants reveal significantly higher levels of nutrients than varieties currently grown. An older variety of apple, the Egremont Russet, has up to 10 times more of a phytonutrient than some modern varieties. The researchers hypothesise that this finding will be just one example of older plant varieties being richer in nutrients and fibre.
Dr Mark Berry, who led the research said: ‘The plants we eat today like fruits and vegetables have often been bred and selected on their weight-based yield per acre of land, and not necessarily on the nutrient content of the produce.’ He adds: ‘Perhaps a better strategy for human health, not to mention sustainable agriculture, would be to buy plants not based on their weight, but on their nutrient content.’
This view reflects research into pre-domesticated cereal grains which have strikingly more protein content compared to modern cultivars.
A gastronomic sensibility prizes this variety. Instead of artificially manipulating conditions with synthetic inputs, we can isolate a wide variety of strains deemed suitable to particular locations. Different regions can express distinctive terroir from carefully selected crops.
This diversity will make our crops more resilient. Biodiversity can even be harnessed to increase productivity through permacultures and forest-gardening.
These varieties can even play a role in addressing the obesity epidemic. The decreased nutritional-value of many foodstuffs is affecting satiety levels. We can consume hundreds of calories of sugar in a soft drink without the hormone ghrelin being released which lets our brain know we’ve had enough. Foods richer in nutrients and fibre confer greater satisfaction.
By shifting away from the production of animal product which requires far greater use of land, energy and water resources we can easily find room for lower-yielding, nutrient-dense varieties. With a raised gastronomic awareness we might waste less.

Food Sovereignty

But how can the cultivation of lower-yielding strains have any relevance for developing countries which confront the challenge of scarcity?
Many scientists argue that GMO technology offers solutions and are attempting to develop biological nitrogen fixation in crops such as wheat which would allow them to survive without synthetic fertilizers. They dangle the prospect of decreased energy dependency and pollution, but admit successful adaptation is many decades away, and may never be achieved. But the advance of GMO also decreases diversity and could have unforeseen effects.
A more sensible approach is for farmers to develop a wide variety of strains suited to different conditions. Lower-yielding varieties might prove more bountiful as the ensuing diversity would be less susceptible to disease and less dependent on polluting inputs derived from fossil fuels. Decrying a prevailing ‘industrial’ model of development in the Third World, Concern Worldwide argue: ‘smart site-specific agroecological approaches that increase production, conserve natural resources and are tailored to specific human and environmental conditions should be favoured’.
It may be that in the Third World raising education levels, gender equality and increasing access to the internet will bring great rewards to farmers there. Indigenous development can occur rather than the familiar story of Europeans bringing progress.

Shifting Diets

Complete self-sufficiency for most countries based on a wide variety of pre-domesticated and native crop varieties would be difficult to achieve, but increasing diversity could benefit our agriculture and improve nutrition.
A global community must retain surpluses to confront shortages. By shifting away from livestock production in the developed world we can produce more food and improve its nutritional quality. A reduction in the consumption of animal products should bring health benefits.
A shift in global diets is required to confront the challenges of obesity, global warming, peak oil and growing populations. A gastronomic sensibility can help inform our choices.

It’s all in the mind

(published in the London Magazine, June/July 2012)

The ultimate achievement of reason … is to recognise that there are an infinity of things that surpass it. (Blaise Pascal 1623-62) 

After reading Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene I was a convert to Neo-Darwinian genetics. In that best-selling work life is traced to individual genes each seeking to confer advantage on the ‘replicator’, which carries the genes, in order to survive through reproduction. ‘Successful’ genes are passed on, unchanged, to descendents.

Its title alone reveals an analysis that sees human life, and nature more generally, as characterized by competition rather than cooperation. That my actions, thoughts and emotions were reduced to a battle for expression between DNA sequences generated slight despondency; idealism, morality and kindness are simply ‘memes’: ideas that, like genes, proved durable in evolution.

Intriguingly, The Selfish Gene was the favourite book of Jeffrey Skilling CEO of Enron. He interpreted neo-Darwinism to mean that selfishness was ultimately good even for its victims, because it weeded out ‘losers’ and forced ‘survivors’ to become strong.

Over time I developed a more nuanced view of the world. An awareness of the limitation of human intelligence (especially my own) and of the historical specificity of any position made me reluctant to accept any one explanation in full.

A powerful scientific voice has emerged to counter the inheritance of Dawkins. Rupert Sheldrake’s The Science Delusion is an antidote to the Selfish Gene. By providing fascinating insights into the new field of Epigenetics he explodes the grim certainty of the Neo-Darwinian analysis.

Sheldrake provides a powerful critique of the present state of scientific research, berating skeptics (including Dawkins) for a dismissive approach to his evidence. He also addresses what he considers the limitations and corruption of Western medicine. Sheldrake’s account, if accepted, may radically alter our understanding of nature.

Cosmic Resonance

It is often suggested that physics through mathematics will ultimately reveal the organizing principles of the universe and all organisms therein. But Sheldrake refers to the uncertainty principle in quantum physics from which it became clear that indeterminism is an essential feature of the physical world, and the apparent incompatibility of quantum theory with the theory of relativity. He quotes Stephen Hawkings and Leonard Modinaw: ‘The original hope of physics to produce a single theory explaining the apparent laws of our universe as the unique possible consequences of a few simple assumptions may have to be abandoned.’

Sheldrake poses challenging questions to materialists such as: ‘Were all the laws of nature already present at the moment of the Big Bang, like a cosmic Napoleonic Code?’ He argues: ‘The very idea of a law of nature is anthropocentric’, and asserts that ‘eternal laws are embedded in the thinking of most scientists’

His intention is not to dismiss all conventional scientific ideas or cast doubt on every study but instead insists on their limitations: ‘The laws of conservation of matter and energy seem less like ultimate cosmic principles and more like rules of accountancy that work reasonably well for most practical purposes in the realms of terrestrial physics and chemistry, where exotic principles like quintessence and the creation of dark energy can be ignored.’

He contends that we operate in an evolutionary universe in which even the laws of nature are subject to change. He says that the oldest of the constants, Newton’s Universal Gravitational Constant, Big G, ‘is also the one that shows the largest variations.’

Sheldrake’s ‘big idea’ is the hypothesis of morphic resonance. He suggests that the habits of nature, organic and inorganic, operate in non-material morphic fields. Ken Wilber defines the concept: once a particular form comes into existence, it will have a causal effect on all subsequent, similar forms; and thus the more a particular form has been replicated, the more likely it will be replicated in the future.’ This idea is unsettling to pure materialists as it resurrects pre-Enlightenment ideas such as vitalism which suggests the existence of soul apart from our material bodies.

Sheldrake outlines interesting phenomena that lend weight to his theory. Referring to ‘habits of crystallization’, he argues that ‘the more a compound crystallizes, the easier its crystals should form’. He gives the examples of Xylitol which was believed to be a liquid until 1942, but subsequently crystallized at successively higher temperatures. When each new temperature for crystallization was reached this pattern repeated itself in other laboratories and the old crystals did not show up again. He also refers to Ritonavir, a drug used against AIDS, which baffled its developers by morphing inexplicably from its original form, and has continued in that pattern since.

He cites evidence from ‘one of the longest series of experiments in the history of psychology that rats do indeed seem to learn quicker what other rats have already learned’. He attributes observed improved performances in intelligence quotient (IQ) tests, known as the ‘Flynn Effect’, to morphic resonance.

We might identify morphic resonance in human history with the independent emergence of agriculture in different continents in close time proximity to one another. Or, more compellingly, the German philosopher Karl Jaspers identified what he called an ‘axial age’ during which revolutionary ideas such as Platonism, Confucionism and Buddhism emerged simultaneously. On a more basic level, most of us have probably said: ‘I was thinking just the same thing’.

The idea of morphic resonance coheres with Karl Jung’s notion of a collective unconscious, and even more strikingly with the Taoist idea of Qi which is seen to define all physical reality. According to Ted J. Kaptchuk ‘Qi is the thread connecting all being. Qi is the common denominator of all things from mineral to human. Qi allows any phenomenon to maintain its cohesiveness, grow and transform into other forms.’ The action of ‘resonance’ is also apparent: ‘The ability for one thing to influence another is called in Chinese gan ying, which is usually translated “resonance”. If Qi is the link, resonance is the method.’

Sheldrake’s hypothesis can thus be situated within a broader constellation that has long been accepted by important and enduring philosophical schools in the East and West. But what is interesting and indeed remarkable about Sheldrake is that he is a professional scientist with more than eighty articles in peer-reviewed journals, including several in Nature.

Unusual Phenomena

Sheldrake enjoys drawing attention to phenomena that seem to debunk established scientific ideas. In response the online Skeptics Dictionary assert: ‘although Sheldrake commands some respect as a scientist because of his education and degree, he has clearly abandoned conventional science in favor of magical thinking’.

The first law of thermodynamics says that change in the internal energy of a closed system is equal to the amount of heat supplied to that system. Thus the ‘closed system’ of a human being (that doesn’t photosynthesise) cannot draw energy or ultimately survive without food (heat).

But Sheldrake draws attention to the case of Indian yogi Prahlad Jani, one of numerous individuals through history who have claimed to live without food, a phenomenon known as inedia. Jani says he has lived without food or water since 1940 owing to the intervention of the goddess Amba. He was put under continuous surveillance by a team of 35 researchers from the Indian Defence Institute of Physiology and Applied Sciences (DIPAS) in 2010 for a period of two weeks.

He had several baths and gargled, but the medical team confirmed that he ate and drank nothing, and, remarkably, passed no urine or faeces. A previous medical examination in 2003 had given similar results. The director of DIPAS said: ‘If a person starts fasting, there will be some changes in his metabolism but in his case we did not find any’. Most scientists would dismiss this evidence as an impossible transgression of the first law of thermodynamics. This leads Sheldrake to ask: ‘Is science a belief system or a method of enquiry?’ While inedia is rare and controversial there is at least a possibility that human beings can actually draw energy from willpower alone. Scientific research should be alive to that possibility, rather than dismissing it as ‘magical thinking’ because it does not fit with accepted tenets.

Sheldrake also shows how many pets display psychic connections to their owners, and provides empirical evidence for telepathy in humans, including uncanny abilities to determine the identity of the person from whom a phone call is received.


The field of Epigenetics upsets established Neo-Darwinian ideas. It originates in the research of Dr. Lars Olov Bygren a Swedish preventive health specialist who explored how the health of grandparents continues to influence their grandchildren. This has been described as ‘ghosts in our genes’ and was hailed by Time magazine as one of the top ten scientific discoveries of 2009. Bygren and other scientists gathered historical data for famines and periods of over-abundance and showed how these environmental conditions continued to affect the life-expectancy of their children and grandchildren even after adjusting for social class. This astounding research is being used to explain trends in human longevity and supports Sheldrake’s argument that genetic codes are not the full extent of inheritance. Orthodox neo-Darwinism particularly that associated with Richard Dawkin has been cast in serious doubt if not superseded.

Moreover, doubt has been cast on the whole field of genetics by the limited insights of the human genome project. Sheldrake gleefully seizes on this: ‘The optimism that life would be understood if molecular biologists knew the ‘programs’ of an organism gave way to the realisation that there is a huge gap between gene sequences and actual human beings’. Recently, he entered a public wager with an eminent biologist on whether with the genome of a fertilised egg or an animal or plant we will be able to predict in at least one case all details of the organism that develops within the next twenty years.

Will Power

Sheldrake acknowledges the contributions of Western medicine to human longevity citing the example of Edward Jenner’s discovery of the Smallpox vaccine but asserts that the ‘rate of discovery is slowing, despite ever-increasing investment in research’. He suggests this is a product of tunnel vision that afflicts many scientists who see the body in terms of its component parts rather than as an integrated whole. This is contrary to the Chinese approach which sees pathology in terms of a web of phenomena. In Chinese medicine an illness may be expressed in the liver but the cause may lie elsewhere, even in the mind. The Western approach is usually more successful than the Chinese at least in the short term, but it tends to address the symptom rather than underlying causes, arguably leaving greater likelihood of recrudescence.

He says that ‘the failure to recognize the power of minds means that Western medicine is weakest when dealing with the healing effects of beliefs, expectations, social relationships and religious faith’. This is despite medical research acknowledging the power of the mind in the placebo effect, but he says that attachment to a Cartesian, mechanistic view hinders exploration of perhaps non-material phenomena. Many doctors will disagree profoundly with Sheldrake’s analysis.

Sheldrake also draws attention to the disturbing corruption of the pharmaceutical industry: he show how prominent scientists are gifted large fees to put their names to articles that have been ghostwritten; the multi-million scale of lobbying to the US Congress; the self-regulation of the pharmaceutical industry in the UK leading to delays in the inclusion of safety warnings (by 21 months in one instance); and the profitable and usually unpunished sale of drugs ‘off-label’.

Most controversially he contends there is ‘overwhelming evidence that scientists’ attitudes and expectations can influence the outcome of experiments’. If correct this has profound implications for our understanding of medical research. We already assume a researcher hopes a hypothesis – say that a pill will have a certain effective – will prove correct. If he is actually ‘willing’ a certain outcome on the participant in the study then we are entering new, slightly troubling, territory. Sheldrake advocates double-blind testing as an important safeguard.

Rather than funding hugely expensive genetic and molecular studies into the causes of diseases he argues that more attention should be paid to social factors that lead to pathologies. He cites research showing that those who pray or meditate remain healthier and survive longer than those who do not, and wonders why more prominence isn’t given to this. He argues that research into genetic or microbial drivers of obesity should be abandoned in favor of focusing on the social factors of a condition already costing the US taxpayer an estimated $160 billion each year.

He argues in favour of complementary and alternative therapies, attributing their efficacy to the time their practitioners spend with patients compared to conventional doctors who work under greater time pressure; and the unhealthy preoccupation of many conventional doctors with prescribing drugs; many doctors will disagree with the latter contention especially. He refers to a review by the WHO of 293 controlled clinical trials of acupuncture that concluded that it is an effective treatment for a wide range of conditions.

A Moment in Time

It would be churlish to dismiss the benefits of Western science. The natural sciences, including medicine, have improved the quality of our lives, raised life expectancies, and generated fascinating insights into the natural world. But its aspirations and blind spots give increasing cause for concern.

The attitude of many scientists towards genetic modification, invariably motivated by corporate aggrandizement rather than genuine necessity is a particular concern. One of the editors of Nature proclaimed that by the end of the twenty-first century, ‘genomics will allow us to alter entire organisms out of recognition, to suit our needs and tastes … [and] will allow us to fashion the human form into any conceivable shape. We will have extra limbs, if we want them, and maybe even wings to fly’.

The Science Delusion exhibits phenomena that belie what are considered the eternal laws of nature. Doubt is cast on established ideas in genetics with important lessons. Perhaps Sheldrake takes his arguments too far at times and undoubtedly skeptics will dismiss his conclusions, but he does adduce empirical evidence that is worthy of open-minded analysis. This open-mindedness to new, even shocking, discoveries is an important prerequisite for all intellectual enquiry. Spirituality, often disparaged by rationalists, may yield important insights. We have much to learn about our cerebral capacities; Iain McGilchrist estimates that there are ‘more connections within the human brain than there are particles in the known universe.’

Six hundred years ago the Catholic Church claimed to understand the workings of the universe, and most people subscribed to their analysis. Today most of us scorn the preposterousness of their infallibility. Perhaps in six hundred years time our descendents will chuckle at certain established ideas of the present time; unless in the mean time scientific advances bring about the untimely demise of human life on the planet.


Medieval Lessons on the perils of Genetic Modification

(Published in the Sunday Times, September 2015)

Dante Algheiri (d.1321) as the pilgrim in his Divine Comedy encounters a soul who warns him: “the vision granted to your world / can no more fathom Justice Everlasting / than eyes can see down to the ocean floor: / while you can see the bottom near the shore, / you cannot out at sea;” [Paradise, Canto XIX, lines 58-64 (Mark Mussa translation, 1984)]

It might seem perverse to introduce a discussion on the genetic modification of crops with a quote from a medieval poet. But Dante’s belief in the limitations of the human mind has a timeless validity. That is not to say we should invariably refrain from launching ships into deep waters, but caution is advised, especially if consequences are irreversible, and effects global.

An article in the August edition of the The Scientific American by Stefaan Blanke came with the title: Why People Oppose GMOs Even Though Science Says They Are Safe. He asserts that the overwhelming body of scientific evidence shows GMOs are safe to eat and good for the environment. He believes new methods must be found to shift the ill-informed masses from their misconceptions.

Blanke claims popular resistance to GMOs arises from flawed understanding of DNA as being unique to individual organisms. Any DNA code can have wide application. Thus the gene of an Arctic fish that is transferred to a tomato should no longer be identified with the aquatic life form, it simply generates a particular characteristic.

But perhaps what Blanke dismissively refers to as “intuition” and “emotions” is a reasonable reaction to the hidden depths that lie ahead. Just as the human mind cannot fathom “Justice Everlasting”, nor can we easily predict the long-term consequences on ecosystems of altering organisms in ways that would not be possible through conventional crop breeding.

This extent of the potential danger is a explored by Nassim Nicholas Taleb the influential author of The Black Swan which examines the extreme effect of rare and unpredictable events. He and colleagues at New York University recently concluded that “Genetically modified organisms represent a public risk of global harm’’.

A change in the nature of one organism in an ecosystem can have quite unexpected repurcussions. Taleb argues that the potentially global reach of GMOs should be treated differently from repurcussions that are localised.

We cannot easily predict the long-term consequences of wholesale-adoption of genetically modified crops. Advocates of the technology, many of whom are not disinterested parties, point to the benefits of Golden Rice which has been engineered to contain Vitamin A. It is claimed that this has saved thousands in the Third World from blindness caused by malnutrition, but this assumes an absence of alternatives to alleviating nutritional impoverishment.

There is compelling evidence that genetically modified crops have indirect effects on human health which Blanke grudgingly concedes. This applies to the utilisation of herbicide-resistant (or Roundup Ready) corn, soya and other crops which have been developed by the Monsanto Corporation. The widespread application of these glyphosphates appear to harm individuals and their descendents living in parts of the world, especially Latin America, where they are grown.

The impact of glyphosphates may extend to those who consume these crops. The US Environmental Protection Agency increased the legal limit for glyphosate residues in soybeans from 0.1 milligrams/kilogram to 20 milligrams/kilogram in 1996. This subsequently became the international maximum residue level.

Evidence suggests that one percent of the glyphosate remains in the body a week after exposure. Because glyphosate is so widely used, most people are frequently exposed to it. But according to a report from the Heinrich Böll Institute the effect of: “exposure to glyphosate, meaning long-term uptake in low doses, has never been investigated.”

As things stand in the EU if the content of a product contains more than 1% GMO ingredients it must be labelled as such, but no labelling is required on the meat of animals that consume GMO feed.  There is no mandatory testing in the EU of glyphosate residues in meat.

Doubtless, a response to this argument is that the fault does not lie with the modification to the crops themselves but the prevailing economic system where a large company can hold a monopoly on the technology. But this is a feature of the ecosystem that encompasses human life too. Reducing the argument to a discussion on the proximate effect of genetic modification of crop varieties is unsatisfactory as it ignores outcomes further down the chain.

We cannot ignore the terrific demands on the world’s resources caused by the explosion of the global population from 1.5 billion in 1900 to over 7 billion today which, purportedly, genetic modification can address. The reliance on fossil fuels in agriculture to feed the world cannot endure. But more than half of all crops are grown to feed domesticated animals and expensively converted to meat: a pig converts 35 percent of the energy in its feed to meat; 13 percent for sheep; and 6.5 percent for cattle. Worldwide 57 percent of the output of barley, rye, millet, oats and maize are fed to animals, as well as 45% of EU wheat. Direct human constumpion of crops would be far more efficient.

Viewed in this light, genetic modification perpetuates a problematic global system of food allocation. It would make far more sense, on many levels, for human beings to be encouraged to shift towards plant-based consumption rather than risk the unexpected outcomes of genetic modification.

Recognition of the need for a worldwide shift in diets is overdue. We might learn a little more from The Divine Comedy in which Dante writes: “Blessed are those in whom / grace shines so copiously that love of food / does not arouse excessive appetite, / but lets them hunger after righteousness.” [Purgatory, Canto XIV, lines 151-154]. Having regard to the unexplored environmental consequences of GM technology and potential contamination through meat consumption, right-thinking people might favour a shift in approach.

Say hello to the Frankenstein-potato

(Published in Village Magazine May, 2012)

In 1935 Scientists from Queenland’s Bureau of Sugar Experimental Stations released into the wild what became known as the Cane Toad, a species native to South America. They were attempting to introduce a predator for the native Cane Beetle which was reducing sugar cane yields. The toad has since multiplied, evolving long legs to travel significant distances. Its population now stands at 200 million with a habitat stretching from Darwin to New South Wales. This amphibian proved ineffective in controlling the beetle but has caused untold ecological damage.

Some years ago avocado-picking near Bundaberg in Queensland I encountered these foul-looking creatures that secrete a poison harmful to most species including humans. These are tough buggers as an Aussie would say. I remember a local jumping on one and pressing it with his boot into the ground only for the toad to hop casually away.

Ireland could have its very own Cane-Toad-moment if Teagasc has its way. The Environmental Protection Agency will make a determination in May as to whether trials on genetically modified, blight-resistant potatoes are conducted in Ireland.

The Irish population, along with fellow Europeans, exhibit a deep suspicion of genetically modified foods. A 2010 poll conducted by the European Commission  ( revealed that only 21% of Irish people believe that GM food is ‘safe for them or their family’, and a mere 17% disagree with the assessment that GM food is ‘fundamentally unnatural’.

Yet a state agency is pursuing a policy completely at odds with the assessment of most of the population. A healthy democracy should not allow this to happen. An issue as important as this should be put to referendum.

In 1998 when Monsanto conducted trials on genetically modified sugar beet in Wexford activists ripped the plants out of the ground. The boys of Wexford might be out in force again. One hopes that activists in any forthcoming encounter are not spied upon as was alleged at that time.

The problem with genetic modification is its unpredictability. Doubt has been cast over the whole field of genetics by the limited insights gained from the human genome project. As Rupert Sheldrake put it: ‘The optimism that life would be understood if molecular biologists knew the ‘programs’ of an organism gave way to the realisation that there is a huge gap between gene sequences and actual human beings’.

Moreover, the field of Epigenetics indicates that heritable changes in gene expression are caused by mechanisms apart from changes to DNA sequence. The genetic fundamentalism espoused by Richard Dawkin in The Selfish Gene has been superseded.

It seems that characteristics of offspring are dictated by DNA codes and traits acquired by parents and even grandparents over the course of their lifetimes. This iconoclastic research was initiated by Dr. Lars Olov Bygren a Swedish preventive health specialist and is now entering the mainstream. The simple equation contained in Leaving Certificate Biology textbooks: Genotype + Environment = Phenotype no longer applies. The serious implications of the emergence of the field of Epigenetics for genetically modified organisms has not been examined.

The scientific establishment is uncomfortable with research that confounds established ideas, and tends to dismiss outsiders who have the temerity to enter scientific debates. Yet intuition can be as powerful as a scientific hypothesis. The laws of physics, let alone biology, are not fully understood and never will be.

Opponents of GM are routinely dismissed as Luddites who ignore the utility of genetically modified foods such as Golden Rice. Professor Harmey of UCD in a letter to the Irish Times argued that genetic modification is a natural process because gene transfer occurs in microscopic organisms.

Humans have been breeding plants and animals for thousands of years. This is based on observable patterns rather that are isolated and gradually enhanced. Most of the results have been beneficial to humanity although certain plants and animals (such as wheat) have been over-bred to a point where they are highly productive but potentially harmful.

Genetic modification by humans is fundamentally different: it involves the immediate formation of a new organism that we cannot understand. The slow process of breeding is bypassed in favour of a quick fix. The outcome is unknown and the logical extension of Professor Harmey’s position is that there is no limit to this ‘natural’ process, so long as there are potential benefits to humanity. We might justifiably start tweaking our own genetic codes.

Scientists cannot predict what will emerge when species are merged unnaturally. The Frankenstein-potato might turn out to be poisonous as a monstrous pea-bean developed by Australian scientists proved: The point is that the genetic code provides only a limited preview of what an organism will become.

The effect of introducing genetically modified crops may be irreversible if genetic contamination occurs. Even if blight-resistant potatoes prove ‘safe’, we won’t know what hybrids will emerge. Just as the Cane Toad developed long legs and was not content to feed on the Cane Beetle the Frankenstein-potato might evolve in unexpected ways. Insofar as possible, genies and genes should be kept within bottles. Besides, there are already blight-resistant strains of potato under cultivation.

Perhaps scientists in Teagasc want to condition us into a permanent acceptance of GM. GM blight-resistant potatoes could act like a gateway drug seducing us into further encounters. It is vital that a precedent is not set and Ireland does not get hooked on GM, not least for the sake of the international reputation of our agriculture.

The development of GM plants is motivated by lucre rather than an altruistic spirit of scientific enquiry. We have ample food in the world. There are currently a billion people obese. Up to half of all food is actually wasted. Golden Rice does not ‘spare’ millions of people in the Third World from blindness as Professor Harmey suggests. Increasing crop diversity and reducing poverty would have the same effect; famines, as Amatyra Sen has pointed out do not occur because of lack of food but from inequalities built into the mechanisms for distributing it.

A far better use of government resources than the proposed Teagasc adventure would be to assist people growing their own vegetables including potatoes, and to encourage bio-diversity such as that found on the few biodynamic farms in Ireland. Alas, the trend in Ireland is towards satisfying the demands of agribusiness and the interest of large food retailers rather than producing healthy food.

The major problem with modern agriculture is a lack of diversity. As Fraser and Rimas in Empires of Food put it: ‘Nature is most resilient when it is diverse’. Over-cultivation in the nineteenth century created the conditions for widespread blight infestation which caused the Great Irish Famine. Similarly, planting vast fields of potatoes makes the crop vulnerable to blight due to a lack of ecological diversity. The quick fix of genetically modified blight resistance could generate unpredicted results in our ecosystem, just as the Cane Toad caused unexpected damage.

Considering our special relationship with the spud surely it should be treated with greater reverence. The proposed trial of genetically modified potatoes shows a complete disregard for the wishes of the Irish people.