Review: What’s So Controversial about Genetically Modified Food?

Catherine Price

John T. Lang. What’s So Controversial about Genetically Modified Food? Reaktion Books, 2016. 184 pp.

From its title, it is easy to assume that John Lang’s What’s So Controversial about Genetically Modified Food? is concerned with only a narrow aspect of food production. However, this book uses genetically modified (GM) food as a lens to examine the whole of the food system and many of its current problems by addressing scientific, social, political, and cultural aspects of the GM debate. Devoid of technical jargon, the book is an accessible read for any discipline. Overall, it addresses the complexity of the GM debate while presenting a balanced perspective.

Chapters one and two unveil the concentration of power in the food system in a handful of seed and chemical companies. These agribusiness companies control both the GM and conventional seed supply, and therefore, they fundamentally control access to food. For instance, a farmer may choose to purchase a GM herbicide-tolerant seed, but in doing so, is also forced to buy herbicides from the same company who owns the seed. This integration of agricultural inputs restricts farmers’ choices. Non-GM adopting countries do have slightly more seed vendors to choose from, since there remain regional and local seed companies. Lang also examines the consequences of agribusiness monopolies on patents and intellectual property rights for the seeds and chemicals they develop. Since commodity crops such as corn (maize) are more profitable, the development of GM fruit and vegetable crops is considered less important. Ironically, these are the crops that would benefit developing countries the most, but there is little prestige or grant money for scientists to develop them. Furthermore, the patenting of scientific developments in food crops has infringed upon farmers’ rights. In order to grow crops, farmers have to pay a license fee to the agribusiness companies. Subsistence farmers, who previously relied on saving seeds for planting the following year, have to purchase new seeds every year.

Chapter three examines the issue of food labeling. Lang observes that sixty countries currently have some form of GM labeling in place, which can be either mandatory or voluntary, depending on their respective regulations. For example, labeling is mandatory within the European Union and even applies to final products made from GMOs that no longer have any trace of GM DNA. Consequently, Lang argues that food labeling is less about science than it is about addressing the concerns of consumers. Labeling provides GM activists and consumers with the ability to make informed food choices, with the knowledge of what they are eating and drinking. Additionally, he contends that consumers believe the labeling of GM foods to be a form of protection against products containing GM ingredients. However, Lang also shows that, for some food companies, labeling has the potential to be a profit making activity, as consumers may be willing to pay more for non-GM products.

Grappling with the limitations of science, chapter four considers the scientific method and discourse relating to GMOs. Here, Lang explains that, although the public may not have a full understanding of genetics, people’s ability to question science should not be underestimated. He also argues that even if scientists educated the public about GM food, they would not necessarily purchase GM products, as science is not the sole factor determining the choices of consumers. In this respect, Lang suggests that other aspects need to be considered, including personal health, social welfare, biodiversity, environmental values, sustainability, efficiency, and cultural heritage. The final part of this chapter describes contradictions and irregularities surrounding the scientific research conducted on GMOs. Lang shows that research pointing to potential health or environmental concerns associated with GM foods has often been dismissed as junk science by agribusinesses. Resulting from this pressure, Lang argues that journals have had to retract scientific studies. Since the belief that scientific inquiry is free from conflicts of interests is integral to public trust in science, any actual or imagined concealment of scientific research can be detrimental to its advancement. Rather than addressing the benefits or challenges associated with GM foods scientifically, stakeholders (including government agencies, agribusinesses, food manufacturers, and environmental groups) often focus on maintaining public trust in their organizations.

Chapter five examines the role that experts play in the food system. Lang describes experts as those who produce, process, and distribute food, although the book fails to explain who these experts actually are. As consumers, we rely on the food and food information that experts provide, which endows them with a position of trust. Additionally, trust is also established by governmental regulations, public advocacy groups, consumer protection groups, and the media. Lang contends that these stakeholders often compete against one another to gain support from consumers while showing that some of the solutions they put forward (e.g. organic agriculture) will exacerbate issues which already exist in the food system. For instance, the lack of food in certain areas of the world is due to insufficient purchasing power rather than under-production. Much food is also wasted either through poor storage, inadequate markets, and disposal by processors, distributors, consumers, and restaurants. Addressing these areas, Lang suggests, is more likely than technological innovation (such as genetic modification) to improve the food system. This final chapter illustrates the complexity of the food system and raises many questions as to how these problems could be solved, the most fundamental of which is as follows: how can all stakeholders, including agribusiness companies who are currently making substantial profits, redesign the food system so that it is fair for all?



Catherine Price is a PhD Student in the Sociology Department at the University of Warwick. Her broad research interests are science communication and public engagement with science, particularly through the media. She is also interested in the representation of food in the media. Catherine’s PhD thesis is examining the constructions of science and scientific expertise and alternative expertise in the online GM food debate. In addition, it also examines the understandings of those who reject scientific facts and their reasons for doing so.