Genetically Modified Foods:
Shared Risk and Global Action
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), or transgenics, are produced by transferring genes from one species to another. Whereas traditional plant and animal breeding involves the crossing of individuals with desirable traits within a single species, genetic engineering (GE) allows the grafting of genes from an Arctic halibut into a strawberry to confer frost resistance or the introduction of bacteria into corn to protect it from pests. Apart from GMOs designed for biomedical purposes, which I shall not discuss here, the main impact of genetic engineering on our everyday lives has been through the GM crops and other GMOs that enter our food system.
GM crops are new life-forms that promise great benefits: they may yield more than conventional varieties, resist disease or pests, require less water or pesticide, or incorporate extra vitamins. However, GMOs also entail complex risks that may not only affect our health and environment but also have social and political implications. Like nuclear power and DDT, GM crops and the foods made from them constitute what Beck (1999) calls a “manufactured uncertainty,” a new technology that carries a range of complex risks and whose longterm global effects are impossible to predict.
Beck (1999) argues that we live increasingly in a world in which the control, predictability, and security characteristics of what he calls the “first modernity” can no longer be taken for granted. Like Douglas, Giddens, and other social theorists, Beck characterizes our current globalized world as a “risk society” where individuals as well as institutions are continually called upon to “decide about the undecidable” (Douglas and Wildavsky 1982; Giddens 1994; Beck 1999). We usually think of risk as a shadow of menace that affects individuals and groups
I would like to thank Nina Brown, Barbara Herr Harthorn, Jessica Jerome, Laury Oaks,
and Sandy Robertson for their generous help with this chapter.