The Online GM Foods Debate

gm-picGM Experiences

A few weeks ago I was invited to Vienna to participate in a 2 day workshop on Responsible Research and Innovation in the Context of GMO. Obviously, these two topics being my main interests in life, I accepted, and off I went with my extremely stylish new laptop/overnight bag to an equally stylish country hotel.

It was a really interesting weekend. The other participants were scientists, members of regulatory bodies and governmental institutions, professors and other professionals from across Europe. I should say that this weekend was part of a much larger project called RES-AGORA, which is funded by the European Commission. You can read all about it here.

If that tickles your fancy here is the 60 page long Stakeholders Report.

But anyway back to the experience of a Luddite blogger in a posh hotel. I learned a lot about genetic modification, legislation, the problems of getting seeds to test, companies not making life easy for those testing or reporting, property rights and their effects over publication possibilities, loopholes in laws in different countries that allow people to legally buy seeds without a contract with the manufacturers (oh don’t get me started), and it got me thinking about writing an article.

So I did, and got it published here, in an Italian online academic journal.

Writing Skills

Now why is this of interest to you I hear you ask. Well I wrote this article basing much of it on the food series that I wrote here  on Technology Bloggers last year. In writing the series I unearthed a real underbelly of food production, and a little organization and rewriting, updating, selecting and expanding, and I had an academic article. You can download it for free here if you like.

The article raises the issue of how the GM debate is played out online. The problem it seems (to me) is that there is no forum for constructive debate about GM, and this leads to a polarization of positions. So we can imagine a scenario in which website “A” points out as many problems as the author can think of, ethical issues, exploitation, altering nature, global takeover of seed production, and other nasties. In the same scenario website “B” is glossy and tells us that only GM will be able to produce enough food to feed an ever growing population, that it is all safe, that they are spending money on research just to help us out….

The problem is that in all scenarios website C is the same as website A, and D is the same as B and so on. There is little room for debate about GM in organic fuel production, or any other possible uses. It is the goodies against the baddies, and the baddies have more money, friends and power. The goodies however don’t seem to have a broad enough base to attack from.

Now the article looks nothing like the blog series I grant you, nor does this 2 paragraph description above, and I have to say that a lot of work went into the article. But having done all of the research for the series gave me a really good grounding. Now I am sure that many readers have written blogs that follow long and intricate lines of argument, but I wonder how many have thought about writing an article for a journal, newspaper or magazine and submitting it? It certainly broadens your writing capabilities, and if you feel you have something important to say it gives access to different readerships.

And it looks good in the portfolio and on the CV!

Misshapen Food


More About Food Waste

I read with interest this week that leading UK supermarket chain Asda is starting to sell oddly shaped vegetables in a bid to waste less food. This announcement leads me to draw a few conclusions that I would like to share with you all, and brings back a few memories.

My mum and dad had 3 boys to bring up, in the dark shadow of the mills of Manchester, and they probably weren’t what we would call rich (today). Every year we went to Skegness for our summer holidays, and every Sunday went to the market.

Markets were a different thing then I think, everyone went. My mum used to buy her biscuits there. She bought them in a bag, a huge bag a bit like the ones we use today to put the rubbish in. The biscuits were broken. They had not made it into the boxes in the factory, were collected up and sold in huge sacks for next to nothing (I presume).

There was a chip shop too that put batter bits on your chips if you asked, the crumbs that had fallen into the fat off the fish, lovely.

As I became some form of adult I continued the tradition. A local chocolate maker sold bags of ‘misshapes’, again chocolates that had come out of the mold wrong, had treacle dribbling out of them or had got squashed. The same chocolates that cost a fortune in their branded high street shops.

Surely this must be a good way to use the wasted ones, although there is the issue of supply and demand that I raised in my previous post about food waste.


So back to Asda. They are going to sell strangely shaped vegetables for less than their regularly shaped cousins. Are they going to sell them for less though because maybe they are worth less (or worthless)? This is a strange idea for sure. They are all fresh vegetables, they all contain exactly the same nutritional value, you can cook them all and they all taste the same, so why sell them for less?

Well we live in a society here in Europe that has engineered a situation in which only certain shapes are good. You might recall I mentioned ableism in a recent post and it certainly isn’t difficult to see how the human figure has been moulded into an ideal type, with all variations somewhat frowned upon or in need of correction (particularly I feel in the case of women).

And this is also the case for vegetables. In this case aesthetics is enshrined in law, as the European Union has regulations about the size and shape of fruit and vegetables. These regulations were ridiculed in the popular press ten years ago as it was said that straight bananas could not be sold. Read all about it here.

And vegetables come in at least 3 categories; nice looking that go into supermarkets, not so nice looking that go into processed food production, and unfit for human consumption, that go into animal feed. But it can all be used, you get less for the ugly ones however.

So producers have always been able to sell these vegetables, but for different uses and at different prices, so I must come to the conclusion that this is a marketing ploy in order to sell them for more. Just my opinion of course, but cynicism runs deep in my line of work.

It would be great to see them though in with their cousins for sale all together at the same price, but reports are that they are often left on the shelf to rot. Apparently people prefer a correctly curved banana to a straight one, and a straight marrow to the one in the photo above.

Selling Surplus Food

community shop

This week I want to add a post to my food series and related posts from earlier this year.

One of the posts in the series was about wasted food.

The Scale of Waste

Just to give you an idea of the content I opened with the following: It is estimated that in the USA between 40 and 50% of all food produced is wasted. There are about 320 million people in the US, so we could safely say that this wasted food could feed at least 100 million people.

And the shocking thing is that nearly all of this wasted food is edible. It is close to its sell by date, the packaging is damaged or incorrectly labeled, Christmas pudding in January. Much of it never even gets to the shops, it fails a quality test because the label is not correctly attached or the packet printing is wrong, and it is discarded.

This week the first UK based Community Shop opened, and in this shop they only sell discarded food. Sounds like a great idea, they take food that is lost during the preparation stages, on its way to the supermarket, and food that is discarded once it has arrived or sat on the shelves for a while, and they re-sell it. Very cheap (70% less), you can make a profit and waste problem resolved I thought. Great!

But of course it is not that simple.

Supply and Demand

One problem is that if you sell this food at a fraction of the previous price, people will buy it and not the full price food. This means that for every tin of beans bought at the community shop, a supermarket sells one tin less. So they might not like that, and that is why in many cases they prefer to destroy the food than to pass it on.

This problem can be seen in this case on a local scale, but it also happens on a global scale. How do you think the farmer in South Africa feels when she sees thousands of tons of free US grown grain distributed for free in a neighboring country? She cannot compete and sell her food any more. Feeding a population without charging them directly destroys surrounding markets.

This is not just a food problem. When we donate our old clothes and they turn up worn by kids in Kenya (Manchester United shirts come to mind), that means that those kids did not buy their clothes, and the local clothes suppliers, and makers, and distributors, don’t work.

So the community shop have found an answer. You have to be a member to buy food there, and to be a member you have to be receiving benefit from the government and live within a local postcode area. Only 500 members at a time, and membership is not for life. The shop also offers free courses in food preparation, CV writing, and many other things that help to manage the household and improve quality of life. Sounds great, but we should remember that many people are working poor that do not receive benefits, or have fallen through the benefit net, what about them? What we need is more of these shops, so that the entry rules can be broader.

This is a great idea. Let’s use the stuff instead of throwing it out. And to be honest I have little sympathy for an industry that is so wasteful and non-sustainable.

If there were a community shop of this type on every corner we could all benefit, and I for one wish them well with their endeavour.

Sending People and Animals into Space


I watched NASA TV all afternoon today. I wanted to see the launch of the new US Space Agency flagship Orion, but unfortunately technical issues led to it being postponed. They will (and I will) try again tomorrow.

Space Difficulties

This is an interesting launch for one major reason, it is the first test flight of a capsule that will carry people, possibly to Mars, but certainly into outer space. The test is going to send it way out beyond the orbiting space station (3600 miles), into an area that is much more inhospitable.

One issue that is different at that kind of distance is radiation. The radiation level is high, high enough to effect machines let alone humans, and so the test will measure how much the engineers have managed to insulate the capsule from this problem. Incidentally this problem is often cited as evidence that the US moon landings were faked, with critics saying that the astronauts would not have survived the radiation levels if they had actually gone there. But that is another post!

Another thing to be tested is its capacity to withstand the temperatures of re-entry in to the atmosphere. You might recall one of the Space Shuttle missions ending in disaster as it burnt up on re-entry due to faulty tiles on the underbelly.

Now I would like to see a rocket launch, but it is a completely different thing to see one with a capsule carrying people attached. I remember the golden days of space travel, when it was only animals that had the chance of orbit. (I don’t really remember them).

Animals or People?

It is after all a dangerous game going into space. This Wikipedia article lists all of the deaths involving space travel, both on the ground and in the air. 19 people have died during space flight, but another 11 have died in training, and if we think that only 533 people have been into space then the fatality rate is high.

So will they send animals in the capsule to test it out again? I doubt it, but alongside the 500 odd people in space we should not forget our animal friend heroes, some of whom gave their lives for this great mission.

Fruitflies, a pest sometimes and national heroes on other days. Fruitflies were after all the first animals sent into space, way back in 1947. In 1949 they sent a resus monkey up called Albert 2, although he died on re-entry. They did have some sensor data however so it ewas not all in vain. They are little remembered though, unlike Laika the dog. Laika was rescued from the streets of Moscow, trained, and sent on a one way mission into space. It is not known how long she lived, the capsule burned up on re-entry, and I am not sure why she was sent, but a heroic end to a flea ridden mut it was in November 1957. There she is in the photo above.

2 dogs did however make it back in one piece after a quick orbit. In 1960 Belka and Strelka made it back home, and I am sure received the welcome they deserved.

Then there was Ham, a chimpanzee. He was trained to interact with the vessel, pulling levers and feeding himself. He became a celebrity upon his return and there is even a documentary film available about his and his friends’ pioneering lives.

If you would like to know more about animals in space (I bet you can’t wait) check out this link.

I am looking forward to a launch tomorrow, with or without animal passengers.

On a final note follow this link to see a photo reportage about abandoned NASA facilities. The places that launched some of these great missions are now in ruins. Makes you think!