We used to have World Food Day on 16 October every year. This year the FAO decided, in its infinite wisdom, to acknowledge the fact that the we-meet-so-they-can-eat shindig goes on for the best part of two weeks. Enter World Food Week.

The best part, for me, was the opportunity to see Marion Nestle give the 6th annual George McGovern lecture on Friday afternoon. 1 It was refreshing to hear someone -- anyone -- speak clearly and directly in FAO's plenary hall. I was most fascinated by the very clear explanation of how the calories per person in the US food supply, the cost of food, the size of portions and the prevalence of obesity have marched in lockstep across the US landscape since the late 1970s. Dr Nestle has written briefly about what she said (nothing all that new) and some of the responses to it at her blog.

I was particularly interested by her response to one interlocutor. A man of the cloth was sat at the end of the row I was in, about four seats away. Not being versed in such matters I cannot be absolutely certain that he was a cardinal; he was not resplendent in a red frock, but his black mufti did have red buttons and piping, so I think he may have been. Anyway, he burbled on for a bit to the effect that whenever he or anyone else objected to GMOs he was given the distinct impression that he “was not a friend of the USA”. Then he stopped.

Nestle looked around, kind of fixed him, but not too gimlet eyed, and said she had not heard his question. In truth, she was being disingenuous; there hadn't been an actual question. Someone said he had asked about GMOs and the US and policy.

Are you asking me whether the US government supports GMOs, she said. Absolutely, yes. She then went on to explain that she had a “nuanced view” on GMOs. 2 She pointed out that there were safety and societal concerns, and that the two seldom seemed to address one another. Then she said (and I wrote this down):

I do not necessarily think they’re unsafe. I am very concerned about the social issues.

And she prefaced those remarks by pointing out that she has a PhD in molecular biology (among other academic qualifications). From UC Berkeley. So I reckon she wasn't straying too far from her area of expertise. She also said that in her view the biggest error of the food industry was not to agree to label GMOs, a point of view I violently agree with. She had been a member of the FDA committee on labeling. “I lost, they won,” she said, and that has contributed to the lack of trust people have in genetic engineers and their products. Personally, I find that hard to argue with. On societal issues, not safety. She did not labour the point, made so clearly in her talk, that the food industry’s approach to labeling and health claims left a little to be desired.

  1. After we had all stood up against poverty, natch. Watch the video and wonder, with me, why they could manage only a single camera and an on-camera mike, especially for such an historic occasion: the first flash mob inside the UN.  

  2. You could have knocked me down with a feather. I was flabbergasted to hear someone admit that in public. 

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