Venomous veggies and the wonders of GM rice

The misery guts gorging on the horsemeat crisis and the developers of GM rice which can save lives.

Zero: UN Environment Programme

For lovers of irritating puns, the horsemeat scandalette, in which a few putatively beefy products have turned out to feature a hint of equine, has been like a red rag to a bona-fide, DNA-checked bullock. ‘And they’re off’, being a favourite best-before-based word play. But it’s not just the nation’s punners who have made hay while the Sun sensationalises. The horsemeat scandal has also attracted a far less benign social constituency: the misanthropic.

For members of this elite group, be they smug metropolitan media types usually to be found sniffing round Whole Foods, or besuited bureaucrats looking for something to do, the horsemeat scandal is not what it seems. That is, it is not the result of a minority of fraudulent suppliers indulging in the age-old trick of adulteration. That would be too banal, too unscandalous. It would also require too much historical perspective. No, what they see in the horsemeat story is an indictment of us, the consumers, a condemnation of our insatiable desire for cheap food, in particular, cheap meat. That is why horsemeat ended up in a few lasagnes: because our demand for cheap food meant that corners (and hooves, and bums, and testicles) were cut.

And the solution this insufferable contingent propose? Eat less meat. And pay more for it. The United Nations Environment Programme announced: ‘Portion size is key. Many portions are too big, more than you want to eat.’ Eat less, a spokesman continued, ‘make it special’. The UNEP wasn’t alone of course. It was merely the official end of the wedge. At the thicker, more unabashedly snobbish end, broadsheet-dwelling no-marks have been flicking off screeds on ‘the true, titanic horror of modern meat-production’. One even asserted that ‘the case for vegetarianism has grown ever-more urgent, and unanswerable’. According to the Guardian, this message needs to be targeted at the real cause of the horsemeat scandal: ‘people hooked on cheap, easy and overly plentiful food.’ That’s code for you and me, by the way.

The UN Environment Programme, having long argued that we’re eating too much meat - and it’s bad for the planet don’t cha know - is this month’s zero. But it’s an accolade any one of the semi-veggie vultures currently feasting on the frozen horsemeat carcass is more than deserving of. Here’s a thought. Instead of dreaming up ways to make life just that little bit more miserable for those of us who think cheap, plentiful food is a good thing, perhaps it would be more productive to look for ways to make food even cheaper and more plentiful.

Heroes: Peter Beyer and Ingo Potrykus

In 1999, Peter Beyer, a professor of cell biology at Freiburg University in Germany, and Ingo Potrykus of the Institute of Plant Sciences in Switzerland, achieved something pretty wonderful. By inserting genes for the chemical beta-carotene into the DNA of normal rice, they had created a rice that contained the precursor chemical used by the body to make vitamin A. It also gave the rice a golden, tumeric-like hue. Thus so-called golden rice was born.

For those regions of the world where rice is a staple food, this ought to have been hugely beneficial. That’s because the problem with rice as a staple food is that it does not help the body make vitamin A. As a result, where people traditionally rely on rice, large numbers suffer the ill-effects of vitamin A deficiency, including blindness. Indeed, according to the World Health Organisation, of the three billion people who have rice as their food staple, 250,000 to 500,000 children have been going blind each year. Of these, half die within a year.

So you would have thought that rice, genetically modified to address vitamin A deficiency, would have been welcomed. Unfortunately, thanks to the tireless lobbying and protesting of professional misanthropes such as Greenpeace, governments have seen fit to entangle so-called golden rice in an ever unravelling ball of regulation and testing. For 15 years in fact. And all the while, those whose lives would be immeasurably inmproved by golden rice, have continued to suffer.

But thankfully, following news that the Phillippines is set to introduce golden rice paddy fields, other rice-consuming nations such as Bangladesh, Indonesia and India now look set to follow suit. So while in the UK a privileged set of foodies bemoan modern food production, urging us to cut down and consume less, golden rice stands as a testament to the ever-expanding benefits of, yep, you guessed it, modern food production.



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