The hidden side-effects of the GM food scare
A Blair spokesman recently said that the Prime Minister has "a sense of frustration that the debate [on GM foods] is not being conducted in as fully informed a manner as it could be." It is certainly true that the use of emotive terms such as 'Frankenstein Foods', the unseemly scrambles for the moral high ground and the distortions of science in the service of competing ideologies have hardly been conducive to calm, rational consideration of the GM issues. But this is nothing new. These features have characterised every food and health 'debate' for at least the past two decades.
This suggests, to those of us engaged in the monitoring and analysis of sociocultural patterns, that the health effects of GM foods are not really the issue here - any more than the actual health risks of eating red meat, fat, 'junk-food', sugar, beef, etc. were the real issues in previous scares. What we are seeing here is a familiar, predictable process in which the competing vested interests of campaign-groups, politicians, academics, charities, businesses, newspapers and bureaucrats vie for attention and supremacy in a war of words.
The stakes are high, and it would be extremely naïve to assume that only the big businesses are motivated by financial gain, when this kind of public attention clearly helps academics, charity bosses and others to secure fat salaries, promotions, funding and research grants. But reputations, prestige, votes, personal vendettas and ideological agendas are also at stake, resulting in the kind of unedifying and undignified mud-slinging we have witnessed over the past few weeks.
In this context, it must be noted that the current health-scare was sparked not by any deaths or illness but by the ill-judged and premature attention-seeking of an obscure academic - who could not resist the temptation to make public statements about his work before it had been subjected to the normal and necessary process of peer review - and driven by the campaign groups Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, who orchestrated press coverage of his friends' attempts to defend him. Other interest-groups were as usual quick to jump on the publicity bandwagon, and the green campaigners have found themselves sharing a platform with right-wing politicians, consumer activists, supermarket chains, Islamic and Catholic pressure-groups and even the Townswomen's Guilds. On the other side, self-proclaimed consumers' champion Philip James and People's Prime Minister Tony Blair have found themselves singing from the same hymn-sheet as Monsanto and other big-business interests.
If the self-righteous posturing and moralising of these rival interests had no damaging consequences, this familiar pattern would be merely an interesting and mildly amusing social phenomenon. The problem is that health and food scares such as this have a number of adverse side-effects which cannot be ignored. They contribute to what sociologist Peter Berger has called a "cultural climate of pervasive anxiety", in which susceptible groups develop a hyper-sensitivity to scares and warnings, becoming increasingly fearful about the 'risk factors' in their diet, lifestyle and environment and attempting to follow often contradictory advice.
It is also clear that high 'doses' of health scares can result in a kind of warning-fatigue, in which people become habituated and de-sensitised to health warnings and eventually pay no attention at all. The danger is that sufferers from this crying-wolf effect are likely to ignore important health-related information as well as unfounded scares. Another very common response to excessive warnings, scares and bans - particularly among rebellious youths - is the well-known forbidden-fruit effect, in which deliberate defiance of authoritarian edicts and safety advice becomes a symbol of independence.
These side-effects are clearly damaging and dangerous to public health, and yet even those engaged in health promotion and 'consumer protection' appear unaware of the potential dangers, continuing to use shock-tactics and scares as a primary means of communication. The main problem seems to be that health promotion itself has become a cut-throat competitive industry, with ever-increasing numbers of agencies, charities, politicians and academics vying for media attention and funding. The result of all these competing ideological, political, financial and personal vested interests is that people are bombarded with scary headlines, warnings and often conflicting advice, much of it based on very flimsy or dubious scientific evidence. This is clearly not in the public interest. A more socially responsible approach to health promotion is required, and if the agencies and individuals involved cannot exercise greater restraint, there may be a need for regulation.