I must confess that I have always liked the expression: I don't know much about art, but I know what I like. I'm not sure how the first person who said it meant it, but it is not just the stubborn sense of pride and the boldness of admitted ignorance that charms me, it is the basic honesty I like. A preference or a passion may be irrational, but we still know what we like.
One of my absolute favourite expressions is: "I don't know much about science, but I know what I like." It flirts with the absurd, but the same streak of truth makes it an amusing and endearing declaration. With food, we shouldn't really need this kind of thinking often, since there is no accounting for taste and we must know what we like to eat.
Still, I bet there are plenty of people who have given into public and peer culinary pressure, the way beer drinkers caved in to reefer in those classic educational films of years gone by. Now they sit, stocked up with balsamico and verjuice, discovering their expensive walnut or herb oils going rancid before they can remember or find enough ways to use them.
And the 'guilty pleasure' must be the most popular culinary discussion of all time, with foodies gleefully admitting to their favourite, unspeakable cravings featuring bizarre but surprisingly satisfying combinations of ingredients that, for some odd reason, are tainted with shame.
I think that we often do find ourselves being apologetic about what we eat, either because of increasingly conspicuous trends, or because of a never-ending stream of studies declaring our ingredients unhealthy at best. Carcinogenic one week, good for some vital organ the next, it is hardly any wonder if we find the I don't know much about ... slogan useful, whether we are talking about art, science or food.
I remember getting into mild trouble for a school paper, because I expressed the opinion that ignoring the constantly changing warning signals about various substances would be healthier because it would reduce stress. My teacher disapproved of this disdain for science, but I couldn't help thinking that Woody Allen was probably closer to the truth when his futuristic Sleeper mentioned the ideal diet of hamburgers, fries and milk shakes - the truth would either shock us, or keep changing every month.
As the years have gone by, the threats posed by our favourite foods have gone through so many permutations that it takes a lot to get a reaction nowadays. Wine and chocolate are currently enjoying the kind of status that fibre and bean sprouts used to command. Fried potatoes have gone from unhealthy to carcinogenic thanks to acrylamides, but since this is a new panic, there is still a chance for improvement. I can't imagine anyone, let alone the masses, giving up chips and crisps because of a potential cumulative danger, after all, people still happily smoke. If chips killed you on the spot, maybe. Just maybe.
It takes a new level of horror to break through our jaded reality. So now we have gene-modification, with its associations of mutations and Frankensteinisms. Is this the logical use of evolving technological sophistication to wipe out world hunger, or a rash, greedy scheme of conglomerates to monopolize and patent our most vital resources? Is this science, or science-fiction?
Well, as is the case with such divisive issues, plenty of research is needed to gain some insight, and the arguments are likely to be persuasive on both sides, with little common ground. At the moment, consumers seem to be suspicious, and gene-modified foods face an uphill battle, even in the USA where the technology has a head start and the backing of the government. Skepticism is not surprising when a microbial ecology professor and member of a national committee of scientists studying the effects of the technology can be quoted saying, "39% (of consumers) say GM foods are worse for one’s health."
Personally, I find such candour refreshing and paradoxically reassuring. It may be the pervading climate of suspicion and conspiracy we live in, but scientists who bring up the subject of their ignorance unprovoked persuade me that their research is likely to be more balanced.
One thing that the debate about genetically modified food does is reawaken my continuously growing interest in organic foods. This in turn leaves me terribly frustrated, since there is something subtly perverse about having to invest disproportionately large amounts of time and money to find foods that have basically been grown the way they were in antiquity. The next best thing is often the natural, 'free-range' type of approach where absolute strictness with every phase of production may be lacking, but the difference in quality - for example, in chickens - can be seen as well as savoured. Then again, there are eggs, where I am embarrassed to admit I cannot detect the obvious difference between the ideal and those produced by tortured hens.
An interesting twist on the biotech debate came home to me in a conversation with the in-laws, who I assume, though an unscientifically small sample group, share the opinions of many of their generation. I was startled to learn that they found the thought of organically grown produce distasteful. They were convinced by and content with the benefits of chemicals and treatments, and a return to muck was surely contradictory to progress?
In the meantime, it is interesting to see that commerce, at least in the UK, have already decided they know what the public want, and that they won't sell GM food even if the stuff becomes widely available.
In the end, you will probably make up your mind because of peripheral factors that suit the way you felt before; big business can't be up to the public good, the benefits of eliminating famine must outweigh the risks, tampering with nature can never be wise, the dangers are both unproven and exaggerated.
I can't criticize that. I know I don't know much about science.
Jonathan Tisdall is a Japanese-Irish-American freelance journalist who emigrated to London before settling in Norway. This has resulted in a wide range of influences, and he still occasionally forgets where he is. © Jonathan Tisdall