View from the fence

Social, environmental and economic issues surrounding GM foods, and the latest news

Genetic modification and inequality

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My mother kindly alerted me to the fact that she’d be blogging for Blog Action Day (today). This year’s topic is inequality, something I believe should be close to the hearts of anyone interested in how genetic modification can benefit (or harm) society.

Firstly, a major manifestation of inequality is an unequal access to nutritious food. Theoretically, genetic modification could be used to change this. Golden rice is a prime example, in its attempts to improve the health of people whose sight and welfare is being threatened by poor diets.

Connected to equality is social mobility. Access to essential nutrients is by no means sufficient for social mobility but it is fundamental. Children without access to regular nutritious meals won’t thrive physically or intellectually.

We don’t just have to think about the products though – it is important to consider the ways in which they are currently being delivered. The distribution of golden rice is explicitly designed to tackle inequality, but the same can’t be said of other crops. The big players, such as Monsanto, are behind most commercialisations.

I’m not inherently anti multi-nationals. Take the pharma industry – there’s a lot to improve on, but ultimately every day I take medication they have kindly provided (thank you). I was struck by the announcement speech for this week’s Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, discussing the efficiency benefits large companies can bring but also the need for regulations to ensure they act for the benefit of society.

For these purposes let’s look at supermarkets (yes, the irony is not lost on me that such huge companies sporadically speak out against GM when arguably the biggest argument against it is corporate control). There are legitimate concerns about the control supermarkets have over our food supply, but they also bring benefits.

In the UK, the poorest members of society benefit most from the cheap food supermarkets can provide, and often from stable employment (and hence the money to afford other staples of a relatively comfortable life). If we don’t keep food prices down it’s those on lower incomes who will suffer.

What initially springs to mind when I think of inequality are food and healthcare, which are generally associated with ability to pay. But what about equality of opportunities? What supermarkets could be criticised for is reducing the opportunities for a greater number of people to be business owners – shops are out-competed and only big suppliers are used. I found an interesting book on the topic.

I would need to do a lot more research to decide how much (if at all) I want to reduce multi-national corporations in my equal society, but there are certainly things I’d like them to do. For a start, I’d like to see them employing people from all the countries they trade in, right up to board level. And I want gender, race, social background, family status and sexuality to be of no consequence when employing people, even at the top.

What does an equal society look like to me? It’s a surprisingly hard one to answer – it doesn’t mean communism, it doesn’t mean everyone is the same. I’m clear what it should achieve though: equal access for all to happiness and mental wellbeing.

Author: Rebecca Nesbit

I am author of a popular science book 'Is that Fish in your Tomato?' exploring the fact and fiction of GM crops. In my work and leisure so far, I have trained bees to detect explosives, used a radar to study butterflies for my PhD, written a novel, taken the train from London to China, organised Biology Week, sold science jewellery on Etsy, and traveled to four continents with Nobel Laureates. Best off all, I've made lots of friends whose support I very much appreciate. Thank you! Please visit my website:

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