Right to choose

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 November, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 November, 1999, 12:00am

The debate about genetically modified foods has for some time been polarised between two giant economic groups. On the one side there are the United States' food producers who have invested heavily in GM crops and technology and who say their products are quite safe. On the other, there are consumers outside the US - along with various scientists - mainly in Europe, who remain sceptical about the risk posed by GM foods.

It is unfortunate that for the concerned consumer the subject has become obfuscated by groups that often have a vested interest in peddling a particular view. And emotive terms such as 'Frankenstein Food' and 'mutants' do nothing to clear the confusion; indeed some GM foods have been around for many years - scientists have been putting barley genes into wheat to make it disease-resistant for most of this century.

But what is clear is that, although the average consumer may not be acquainted with all the facts, nor very the latest research, many are not prepared to swallow any expert's or government's words unquestioningly. And, after so many health scares of recent years, who can blame them? Most of these food scares - mad cow disease being the most widely-publicised - emanated in Europe, so perhaps European consumers are more sensitive about food contents than their counterparts in the US.

But in Hong Kong too, it seems - if the survey reported today represents the prevailing view - an overwhelming number of people demand the right to know. And this would seem to be the commonsense approach.

There are many great advantages put forward by GM food lobbyists. Not least of these is that genetic modification will produce greater yields and cheaper food. There is little doubt that this is true and has popular appeal, certainly in the US, where the appetite for more expensive organic produce, which has taken root in Europe, does not exist to any great extent.

Based on so many contradictory signals, it is almost impossible for the lay person to hold a categoric view either way. But while there is still an ongoing debate, with eminent scientific bodies on both sides, it is only right that consumers be allowed to know what is in their food. The argument for clear labelling of GM products is therefore overwhelming. But, although this may be so, the US is an example of what happens in a market where consumers do not make clear demands of retailers: precisely nothing.