Last updated: April 16, 2012 12:27 pm
Are you eating a mutant meal?
Breaking down genetically modified food
VICTORIA (CUP) — When I first heard about genetically-modified (GM) food, I reeled at the ingenuity of customizing a food product through the very source: DNA. The prospect sounded like something from a science fiction film. To be honest, it was a little unnerving. For the time being, though, I shrugged off the idea that I might personally have eaten GM foods. I assumed I’d know one if I saw one.
When I later read that Canadian grocery stores are teeming with the stuff, I was less than thrilled. Why had I never seen any labels advertising GM ingredients? Where were all these futuristic foods hiding?
After some investigation, I found out GM foods often look and taste just the same as non-GM foods and, despite this fact, the Canadian government doesn’t require them to be labelled as such.
In other words, we’re basically stripped of the ability to choose what we prefer to buy — GM or non-GM — as soon as we enter a grocery store. The shelves are lined with laboratory-born creations. In fact, roughly 70 per cent of the processed food sold in Canada contains at least one GM ingredient. But trying to identify them is futile unless you’ve first done some research. And even then, the task is somewhat hit-or-miss.
A short history of GM
GM food made its world debut in 1994, two years after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration dubbed it “not inherently dangerous.” The ground-breaking first GM food was the Flavr Savr tomato sold in the United States, which was designed to stay fresh longer than the average tomato. Canada began selling GM food in 1996, and now ranks fourth among the world’s top GM producers after the U.S., Argentina, and Brazil.
The only four GM crops grown in Canada are soy, corn, canola and sugar beet; but multi-ingredient snacks such as cookies, pizza, chips, etc. often contain at least one of those four crops in some form or another. For example, sucrose is made from sugar beets.
It’s easy to see why controversy has been buzzing since the start, given that GM is pretty much all around us in disguise. Opponents warn of potential danger — including risk to our health and to the environment — while supporters say GM food could actually boost overall health of the world population and do the environment some good.
The science behind it
Let’s back up for a moment to review some basic biology. Every life form has unique genes, and it’s the genes that determine the unique set of traits, or characteristics, an organism displays.
For instance, for each of your own traits — such as your hair colour, height, whether or not your skin is freckled, etc. — there is a specific gene or sequence of genes to thank. If you replaced just the genes that determine eye colour, you would appear unchanged except for your eye colour.
Similarly, there’s a gene (or genes, depending on the trait) responsible for each trait in other life forms, such as plants, as well. When genetically modifying, scientists basically aim to slice out the relevant genetic material from one organism and insert that material into another organism. After the act is done, the enhanced organism can pass along its new genes by reproducing, just like natural life forms.
Gene swaps are usually performed between same-species organisms (i.e., plant to plant), but it’s possible to mix the genes of any life form regardless of species. Corn that’s been given DNA from bacteria is just one example.
GM on the farm
For centuries, farmers have been selectively breeding their crops to produce hybrids — new plants that display characteristics of both parent varieties. The process of naturally attaining an ideal hybrid can take years, as there are often bad traits passed along with good traits. But GM allows farmers to grow new versions of crops that are guaranteed to display certain sought-after traits. Nowhere are benefits more immediate than on the farms where crops take root and grow.
One of the most common GM crops is pest-resistant corn. This corn contains genes from a type of bacteria that produces protein lethal to insects. Among other common GM crops are those with a tolerance to toxic chemical sprays. These weed-killers would normally kill the crops along with the weeds.
Farmers can also grow GM crops made to thrive in soil that would otherwise be too dry or salty to support life, and crops immune to plant diseases. The appeal to farmers is clear. They can potentially reap more product than usual at harvest. To sum it up, farmers can theoretically cash in on GM crops — at least in the short term.
Although sometimes farmers manage to benefit, choosing to grow GM can, in some cases, lead to financial loss. This outcome often occurs when the companies that sell the GM seeds controls how those seeds are used.
A small number of companies are responsible for supplying the majority of GM seeds. The largest of these companies is Monsanto, who also owns the patent to a popular brand of weed control products known as Roundup.
Monsanto exerts considerable control over the use of its products. According to the Centre for Food and Safety, before buying Roundup Ready seeds farmers must sign an agreement, specifying that they “will not save and replant seeds produced from the seed they buy from (Monsanto).”
In other words, buyers must agree to let the seeds produced by their GM crops go to waste. Presumably, they will buy new seeds every year from Monsanto — making this rule very lucrative for the company. Also, Roundup Ready seeds always must be bought from Monsanto, not purchased indirectly through other farmers.
When Monsanto believes its rules have been violated, the company has a history of taking legal action against the farmer in question. One of the most well-known cases occurred when farmer Percy Schmeiser was found to have illicit canola growing in his fields. Schmeiser said the GM seeds had blown over from a neighbouring farm. Monsanto, however, wanted Schmeiser to pay a fee regardless. The company went forward with a trial despite having zero proof that Schmeiser had illicitly obtained the GM canola.
The fact that GM crops can and do spread via wind gives credibility to Schmeiser’s claim. Such a natural phenomenon may account for many of the cases in which Monsanto has pursued legal battles with farmers for allegedly obtaining GM seeds illegally. According to Monsanto, the laws are in place to protect licensed growers.
To eliminate any chance of replanting seeds or otherwise using them for personal profit, a new type of GM seed has been developed that produces sterile crops. If these “terminator seeds” are put on the market, the farmers who plant them will have no choice but to re-purchase a new supply every year.
Safety testing and health
While benefits to companies that sell GM products are clear, benefits to the rest of us are up for debate. A concern among some experts is the way the Canadian government tests GM foods for safety — namely, that it does not. Instead of performing independent tests on each new GM food, Health Canada relies heavily on information given by the GM companies themselves about their proposed products.
Also, a concept called “substantial equivalence” is relied upon during the safety assessment process. Health Canada compares the proposed new GM food to non-GM foods that have been around long enough to be accepted as safe, and factors the degree of similarity into the decision.
Many people see such screening methods as simply not good enough given that, according to certain scientists and organizations such as the World Health Organization and Greenpeace, there are potentially unique health risks from GM foods.
Greenpeace, for example, lists on its website that “development of antibiotic resistance, allergic reactions, nutritional changes, creations of toxins” are among the possible health hazards of GM, and also asserts that GM food is “a giant genetic experiment with unpredictable and possibly irreversible risks.”
But the experts are divided on whether or not GM food is safe for humans to eat. Perhaps the real cause for concern, according to the scientific report “Beyond risk: a more realistic risk assessment of GMOs,” which was published by The European Molecular Biology Organization in 2008, is that the public is excluded from meaningful discussion about what safety means to them.
“Scientific experts ... are certainly not experts at determining and evaluating what the public might consider to be acceptable types of risk for several reasons,” according to the report.
And while the report also indicates that an open discussion about safety could have its own problems, such as varying degrees of scientific knowledge and difficulty coming to a consensus, the authors conclude that “it seems more compatible with the values of a democratic society to overcome these problems rather than to simply eliminate the public from decisions that will have a significant impact on their lives.”
After all, no tests have been done to prove long-term health effects of GM food — although we, the consumers, must deal with whatever impacts come about. Many people feel that they haven’t been adequately engaged in decisions about whether growing and selling GM foods in Canada is even a good idea.
GM food in the spotlight
Despite not being asked an opinion directly about whether GM foods are safe, the public is nevertheless finding ways to weigh in. Some of those who favour GM feel there’s a modern witch hunt underway, and indeed there are articles that have misreported scientific findings by citing the dangers of GM to health when, in fact, the original studies did not support those claims.
But scientific studies, and the articles reporting those studies, do sometimes merit a second look. For instance, a recent independent study done in Quebec found that traces of Bt toxin (the active ingredient in GM pest-resistant crops) can survive in the human bloodstream. This finding counters a previous belief that the Bt toxin would break down within the digestive system.
The Quebec study sampled blood from pregnant and non-pregnant women, and found that high percentages of the women in each test group — 93 per cent and 69 per cent, respectively — carried the toxin. What’s more, Bt toxin was also found in 80 per cent of the fetuses, raising concern that GM material could be passed down like our own DNA. This situation isn’t proven to pose health risks, but the researchers have recommended further testing.
On the other hand, there’s evidence to suggest that GM food could actually improve health. For example, scientists have developed a variety of rice that’s rich in vitamin A —the vitamin necessary for good eyesight. The goal is to donate this “golden rice” to undeveloped countries, where every year upwards of 250 000 children go blind because they lack vitamin A.
There’s also a special debate related to how genetic-modification technology could help undeveloped countries in a broader sense. Specifically, GM food is sometimes looked to as a solution to world hunger due to high crop yields and plants that can grow in harsh conditions.
But negative public opinion has kept countries such as Africa from fully accepting GM food. For instance, when a drought-stricken Africa and citizens were faced with starvation, Zimbabwe and Zambia turned down offers of free maize from the U.S.A. “simply because the maize was GM,” according to the report “Response to issues on GM agriculture in Africa: Are transgenic crops safe?” published in 2011 on the website BioMed Central. Similarly, “golden rice” has failed to reach its target population thus far in part because of the bad press surrounding GM.
Effects on the environment are closely tied to effects on human health. Unsurprisingly, there’s a similar amount of conflict about the environmental impacts of GM food, with both opponents and supporters.
Given that GM technology is effective and can produce fast results, it makes intuitive sense that it might also be hard to control. One concern is that GM crops will outcross with neighbouring non-GM crops, spreading their seeds through pollination and wind. Some people worry the situation could lead to non-GM crops being overtaken by GM crops altogether down the line.
Another potential problem is the possibility of creating “superweeds.” As discussed, it’s hard to predict what will happen when mixing DNA in the wild. There’s concern that weedkiller-resistant crops will eventually, through the process of mating with wild plants, over time lead to super-resistant weeds.
Basically, if the worst-case scenarios described by GM opponents actually pan out, biodiversity and the balance of the ecosystem could wind up broken beyond repair.
However, studies have found that fewer chemical sprays are used in GM farms versus non-GM farms. The fewer chemicals used, the less toxic waste left over. So GM could potentially reduce chemical pollution in the environment. But since no long-term studies have been done on the environmental effects of GM crops, there’s no hard evidence to back up any of these claims.
Canada is one of the only developed countries, along with the U.S.A, not to require mandatory labelling of GM foods. This stance varies from the United Kingdom, where GM foods are required to be labelled under a “precautionary principle.”
In Canada, the government allows companies to decide for themselves whether they want to include “contains GM ingredients” on the labels of GM food. In other words, labelling is voluntary in Canada and virtually non-existent as a result.
But it appears voluntary labelling has been unacceptable to most consumers from the beginning. In 2003, 88 per cent of respondents to a scientific poll conducted by the University of Maine and The Ohio State University wanted mandatory GM labels. And today the trend continues, with online polls routinely showing a marked desire for a mandatory labelling law.
The pro-con GM debate comes down to is this: there are real, noteworthy findings that support and oppose each argument, and along with the facts, there is much speculation.
Perhaps the biggest speculation lands with us. We have no choice but to guess which foods might have GM ingredients, or to ignore the possibility. And we’re likely to keep guessing in the future. By not making labelling mandatory in Canada, it’s impossible for the government to accurately chart the long-term effects — disastrous, wonderful, or somewhere in between.