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In polarized debate on GMO foods, neither side is completely believable
A recent forum in Osoyoos on genetically modified crops left many in the audience of more than 150 people wondering about the safety of the food they eat.
After reading more about the issue, however, I’m skeptical of many of the claims from groups on both sides of the debate.
I’m not convinced that eating genetically modified foods will cause us to grow tumours like lab rats in dubious experiments. But I do think the proliferation of these crops raises serious environmental concerns.
Unless you are raising your own food or are living on organic produce from trusted sources, you are probably regularly eating food that contains GMOs (generically modified organisms).
According to Health Canada, more than 81 genetically modified foods have been approved for sale in this country.
The majority of processed foods contain GMOs, especially if they contain cornstarch, soy protein or sugar derived from beets.
Most livestock that is raised for meat or milk eats a diet containing GMOs.
Despite urban myths about tomatoes sprouting gills after being modified with fish genes, most fruits and vegetables are not yet genetically modified. The few exceptions include Hawaiian papayas, some sweet corn and some squash and zucchini.
If we believe the two former federal scientists speaking at the forum, GMO foods pose very serious health and environmental risks and we should be very, very scared.
A wide range of other scientists, however, and not just those associated with the biotech industry, say otherwise.
“Health Canada is not aware of any published scientific evidence demonstrating that novel foods are any less safe than traditional foods,” Canada’s regulatory agency says.
In the United States, the Food and Drug Agency (FDA) makes a similar statement: “Foods from genetically engineered plants must meet the same requirements, including safety requirements, as foods from traditionally bred plants.”
If we search the internet for information about GMO foods, we find thousands of articles claiming they are very dangerous and many suggesting the biotech company Monsanto is evil.
But we also find thousands of articles saying no harmful effects from GMO foods have ever been demonstrated and the technology offers huge promise for developing more nutritious, pest-resistant, drought-resistant foods.
Who do we believe?
Most of us are not geneticists and a lot of geneticists seem to have their own biases and agendas on one side or the other.
The GMO issue says something interesting about human nature. Many of us decide intuitively what we believe is the truth and only then do we look for scientific proof that supports those beliefs.
We ignore or dismiss information that conflicts with our preconceived notions.
My sense reading some of the anti-GMO literature is that many opponents seek out any evidence, whether reliable or not, that proves GMOs are dangerous. This fits their worldview of distrusting corporations and technology and their nostalgic yearning for a romantic age of small family farms and handmade goods.
The pro-GMO side is equally blinded by their faith in technology to solve all human problems to the extent that they dismiss away numerous potential unintended consequences.
In polarized debates, usually neither side is completely right and the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
The most reliable information comes from those, whether academics, media or government, who point out both the pros and cons of a debate and attempt to be objective.
On the question of the safety of GMO foods, the middle ground taken by the World Health Organization (WHO) appears to be credible:
“Different GM organisms include different genes inserted in different ways. This means that individual GM foods and their safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis and that it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods. GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health.”
Even if the food safety risk is overblown by GMO opponents, there is reputable science suggesting environmental concerns.
GMO crops using the Bt gene (bacillus thuringiensis), a natural pesticide, may have cut down on the use of chemical pesticides – aimed at controlling insects.
But other GMO crops designed to tolerate Roundup have increased the use of this herbicide – a chemical aimed at controlling weeds.
Perhaps one of the biggest concerns is “outcrossing” or the movement of genes from GMO crops into nearby conventional crops and weeds.
We risk accelerating the ability of weeds to tolerate herbicides, allowing them to proliferate. And insects may develop Bt tolerance, while at the same time non-target insects, such as bees and butterflies, may be adversely affected.
Farmers hoping to sell their produce into parts of the world such as Europe that restrict GMO crops run the risk that their organic or conventional crops can be “contaminated” with pollen from nearby GM fields.
GMO crops have been on the market for less than 20 years and already they are revolutionizing agriculture.
Reputable science does not support claims that GMO foods per se are dangerous to eat, although different genes may affect foods in different ways. Some of the scary studies cited at the recent Osoyoos meeting have been widely discredited by scientists, however.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t still many important unanswered questions about the long-term impact of GMO crops on agriculture and the environment.
Richard McGuire is a reporter/photographer with the Osoyoos Times.