There are three types of people in this country. Those that can count and those that can’t. It is common to blame the education system for this.

One of the consequences of a poor education is we end up being poor critical thinkers. People who didn’t learn a lot of maths play Lotto, and those who didn’t like physics go to psychics. But it is more than this. Every day we are expected to make judgements about things.

The latest subject on talkback radio is Genetically Modified (GM) foods. A large number of people are very frightened of Genetic Engineering (GE). But they appear to be frightened for the wrong reasons. For example, it should soon be possible to add genetic material to a virus or bacterium which is then used to infect a possum. When possum A meets possum B the infection is passed on. Pretty soon even possum Z is infected. The genetic material produces a protein. This protein causes the possums to produce antibodies against their own sperm and ova.

The result is a disease that renders possums sterile. While this is a pretty neat solution to the possum problem in New Zealand, it would be a natural disaster if it got loose in Australia.

Now this is a good reason to be careful with GE. But this isn’t the sort of reason that most people bring up when talking about GE. The big concern for many people is GM foods. “Are they safe?” they ask. Well of course not. Nothing is safe, so why should GM foods be any different? If you are going to refuse to eat things because they might not be safe, you are going to starve to death. If you eat too much fish and chips cooked in non-GM oil, you’ll still get fat.

So I ask, “What do you mean ‘Is it safe’?”

“Well,” they say, “does it contain toxins or not?”

Now this might seem like a reasonable enough question, until you realise that most things are toxic if you have too much of them. Take trace elements as an example. Selenium is essential for survival. If you eliminate it from your diet you will not live very long. But you mustn’t have too much either. Most vitamins will be toxic if taken in too large a quantity. But try getting by without them.

GM foods, like all foods, contain things that can be toxic if you eat too much of them. But this doesn’t mean they “contain toxins”. Not in the sense the scaremongers mean.

If you keep asking “Why are you frightened of GM foods?” you will get a couple of standard responses. After the “Is it safe?” reply, you’ll get the “We don’t know the long term effects of eating GM foods.” This is just a rewording of the “Is it safe?” question. And the answer is similar. We don’t know the long term effects of eating anything. The irony is that the same people who worry about the long term effects of eating GM food are quite happy to use echinacea and any other herbs even though we have even less idea of the long term effects of eating those. For practical purposes, GM food is as safe as normal food, but that apparently is not good enough.

Because GM food is unnatural. But so what?

There is an ad for shampoo on the TV at the moment which shows a naked woman wandering through the jungle past strategically placed leaves and the voiceover says “The healthiest way to live is close to nature.” I don’t know about you, but if I were to wander around naked in a rain forest, I would probably get sick, or arrested. I can’t be certain — after all, I have never actually done it. And I’m not going to either. I prefer to wear clothes, live in a house, and use hot water and shampoo when I wash my hair. It may not be natural, but why would I want to be natural?

And what does this have to do with GM foods?

The answer centres around the word “natural”. The idea that “the healthiest way to live is close to nature” is so ingrained in popular consciousness that very few question it, even though it is false. This belief has reached the level of a religion. Like all religions, it is an attempt to gain control in an uncontrolled world. But it isn’t true. Natural is not always good. Nicotine is natural and carcinogenic. Apple seeds contain a natural chemical that reacts during digestion to produce hydrocyanic acid, otherwise known as cyanide. Do not eat a cupful of apple seeds, even if they are organic. Natural, but not safe. But facts are unimportant in religion.

When they say that genetic modification of food is unnatural, they are assuming that you and everyone else knows that unnatural is bad. Now I personally do not know this. My life was saved by a very unnatural removal of my appendix.

If you doubt that “natural” is a religious belief, watch TV for a couple of hours, and listen to the ads. It doesn’t matter how unnatural or diluted something is, if it was once on a shelf next to something that was made from a plant, they will call it natural. From pills containing a few milligrams of garlic extract to the full range of feminine hygiene products. All claim to be natural. If something really is natural, like a lettuce, simply being natural isn’t good enough. It has to be organic. Organic food is grown in one of two ways. Either it is grown using totally natural herbicides and pesticides (as if these are somehow less toxic), or it is grown using conventional methods, and then someone writes organic on the box.

Which brings up the issue of food labelling. If you write “organic” on the box, some people will pay more for it. If you write “GM” on the box, some people will not buy it. Do you think some dishonest greengrocers might relabel GM lettuces as being organic?

The only good reason for labelling GM foods, that I can think of, is a religious one. If you put genes from a pig into an apple, are Jews or Muslims allowed to eat them? If we put human genes into cows, are we cannibals if we eat the meat?

Do you think the world’s starving millions really care?

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