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BMJ 2001;322:115 ( 13 January )

Reviews

Book

The Future of Food

Brian J Ford

Thames and Hudson, 6.95, pp 120 

ISBN 0 500 28075 4

---------------------

Rating: star star star

Had it appeared earlier, this monograph on the future of food---one of a series entitled "Prospects for Tomorrow"---would have evoked little interest. However, in the space of a year, fuelled by publicity surrounding genetically modified foods and genetic predisposition to human disease, accounts of food-related health benefits and risks have reached unprecedented levels of visibility and audibility. So what's all the fuss about?

In determining the credibility of any information on the subject, we should remember four things. Every new technology creates winners and losers, and has advocators and detractors. In any head to head confrontation, we can bet that emotion will trump science. Segments of society (the Luddites) will oppose change before it even occurs. Finally, groups, such as the organic food industry, will exploit the public's perceived fears for the purpose of marketing their own products.

The introduction of genetically modified foods was badly bungled. Firstly, they were introduced surreptitiously to an unprepared and uninformed audience. Secondly, this first wave of genetically modified foods benefited producers, not consumers. Added to this were concerns in Europe over "mad cow disease," flawed experiments reported to the press about rats made ill by genetically modified potatoes (rats hate all potatoes) and about pollen from genetically modified corn killing monarch butterflies (under unnatural laboratory conditions), and fear that vast fields might be taken over by superweeds created by genetically modified pollen fertilising "wild" weeds. The public's response was predictable. The backlash was further fuelled by transparent commercial interests, concerned farmers who feared being disadvantaged by the cost and availability of genetically modified seeds, and by environmentalists with legitimate yet theoretical concerns about environmental damage.

The second wave of genetics based technology is on the horizon---genetic testing of well individuals for susceptibility to diseases such as heart disease; breast, colon, and prostate cancer; obesity; and diabetes. This will be an essential precondition for initiating individualised preventive measures, such as behavioural and nutritional modification. A wealth of information on the preventive value of specific phytochemicals and other micronutrients in food has been amassed. An example of the preventive potential of genetically modified food was the recent announcement that a genetically modified tomato created at the University of London contains 3.5 times a normal tomato's level of beta  carotene, a precursor of vitamin A (headline: "GM Tomatoes Fight Cancer"). For millions whose principal source of nutrition is rice, genetically modified rice enriched with vitamin A, iodine, and iron could change lives now impaired by anaemia, malnutrition, mental retardation, and blindness.

Brian Ford is highly qualified to opine on the future of food, and his objectivity in this book is refreshing. Early on, he points out that "natural food" is an unsustainable notion because few of our crop plants and farm animals are natural---all are the consequence of unnatural selection for human use. Citing the destruction of rain forests and the surprisingly large consumption of grain for raising beef cattle as egregiously wasteful of resources, he provides an insightful consideration of the relation between food and world population.

I agree with his prediction that meals in the future will be chosen because they are quick and easy, and that particular foods will be selected because of their power to improve health, prevent disease, boost our brain, and delay senility. We will be able to choose snacks that will do such marvellous things as boost our mood.

As Ford concludes, "genetic modification, like electric power, road transport and computers is inevitable and the public will gain little by campaigning to ban it, yet a laissez-faire attitude could threaten the environment." He also gives a useful framework for the future.

Charles Wilson, director

Institute for the Future, Menlo Park, USA


BMJ 2001

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