Public fears the power of food science

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

Tom Heap:“People are very, very afraid of technology in food”
Tom Heap:“People are very, very afraid of technology in food”

Related tags Food Genetic engineering

Consumers are frightened by developments in food science as they fear those behind them will wield too much power which they will abuse, BBC TV’s Countryfile presenter Tom Heap has suggested.

Because people often have a poor understanding of the new technologies being developed and what benefits they bring, they are fearful and cling on to a belief that food is “our last link to a natural world”,​ said Heap.

“People are very, very afraid of technology in food,”​ he remarked. “We welcome it in innovation and human ingenuity in just about every part of our lives, but we are extremely nervous about it in food.”

Heap, who last year made a TV Panorama programme describing the merits of genetic modification (GM) and another about the benefits of consuming ‘super broccoli’, made his remarks while giving the Society of Food Hygiene & Technology’s annual lecture last year, titled: ‘When the food hits the lens: the diet of broadcasters’.

TV bingeing on food

“By God, food is it hitting the lens at the moment. The TV is absolutely bingeing on food,”​ he said. “Clearly we are a bit addicted to food as broadcasters. Whether or not we actually get into some of the issues behind it is a separate question.”

Heap recognised that much media coverage of food and food science in particular was superficial and unnecessarily confrontational. He cited the example of campylobacter in chicken.

“I think we do have an issue in the coverage of technology and advances in food,”​ said Heap. “Some of the coverage of campylobacter in the media strikes me as lazy, unbalanced reporting and finger pointing.

“We will accept GM medicine, but we won’t accept GM food. It is partly because we are concerned about human ingenuity.

“Technology has helped in terms of medicine, no one will deny that. Yet, there is a narrative in food that the hunter gatherer somehow had a better diet.”

Worship of natural is lame

He added: “This worship of the natural world and a natural diet is, frankly, a little bit lame. The idea that we haven’t benefitted from technology in food is absolutely mad, whether it be the development of crops and agriculture or the invention of cooking.”

Heap said opposition to GM foods had begun to diminish as they had now been widely consumed around the world for a number of years without adverse consequence. But UK consumers still needed to see some significant personal benefits before they would be prepared to buy them.

The priorities for proponents of GM were now about properties, such as crops with drought tolerance, which required fewer pesticides, and others that offered improved nutritional properties. But more tangible benefits, such as offering lower priced foods or protection against allergies, would really drive greater consumer acceptance, he added.

“It is a very powerful tool and that is one of the things that lies behind the fear of it: fear of human power and what mankind and scientist can do,”​ said Heap. The same was true for the use of newly developed gene-editing techniques, he added.

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