In August I wrote an article entitled “Thoughts on Picking Beans” (not “Pickling” as the headline stated). I concluded by saying that I was hungry and looking forward to a salmon dinner.
At that time, the news media was informing us that a new genetically modified salmon has been produced and was being marketed and bought, without people knowing about it. The genetic modifications of the salmon normally farmed resulted in a larger salmon in a shorter period of time, with less feed required.
The news business thrives more on feeding anxiety, concern and fear in the general public, especially when it comes to something as personal as the food we consume. It is fair to say that the news media has left a large portion of North Americans with the impression that any genetic alteration or genetic engineering is bad or even dangerous to our wellbeing.
So, as I sat down to my salmon dinner that evening last August, I did not know whether I was eating regular farmed salmon or the new farmed variety. It did not bother me that I did not know. It did not bother me that I did not care. I enjoyed it. Period.
Shortly after that I picked up a blurb in a newspaper that most of our new varieties of apples are genetically modified from older varieties, but having more favourable characteristics in terms of flavour, crispness, disease resistance and storage life. So, who doesn’t like the “Honey Crisp” and “Gala” apples available today?
Of course, some new apple varieties may be the result of crossbreeding and not genetic engineering. Crossbreeding has been practised by accident or design, for thousands of years. Think of the hundreds of breeds of dogs descended from the wolf.
When Gregor Mendel developed the principles of heredity around 1860, he paved the way for the science of genetics. However, it was not until the discovery of DNA, sometimes called the “molecule of life,” that gene manipulation and modification took off, resulting in genetically modified foods. Among other results, GM foods are also known as engineered or bioengineered foods. They are foods which have had changes introduced to their organic gene make up or their DNA.
While Cross-breeding is generally accepted, genetic engineering is relatively new, not well understood by the general public and therefore subject to controversy. Some see GM foods as the solution to world hunger, while others describe it as “Frankenfood”; as the cause of allergies, cancer and many negative effects on humans, as well as on pollinators and on the environment generally.
Genetic engineering has produced crops which are disease and pest resistant and thrive in climates and soil conditions that were previously unsuitable. In South Africa for example, farm income increased by US $156 million (according to a United Nations Report) in the space of a few years, all as the result of GM technology. The Bill Gates Foundation funded a GM banana in Uganda, which resisted the banana wilt, which had previously wiped out entire crops. GM foods enable vegetables to be enriched with cancer-fighting chemicals, corn to be drought-resistant, peanuts which are allergy free and bananas that can deliver vaccines.
Other potential breakthroughs by the use of genetic engineering may produce oranges which resist the citrus-greening virus( threatening a US $9-billion industry in Florida alone), flu-free chickens and an enhanced golden rice, which has the potential to eliminate blindness in up to 50 per cent of the population of some countries.
Despite all past, current and potential successes and achievements, there remains a great deal of concern and scepticism in the general population, caused and stirred to a large extent by environmental groups, such as Greenpeace. They warn of unforeseen dangers and of the wanton disregard for safety by the GM industry.
They are right to this extent: we have to be vigilant and make sure that our governments at all levels implement and maintain the strictest testing and approval standard humanly possible. If the existing regulations are not tough enough, let’s make sure that they cannot be circumvented by corporate greed or scientific sloppiness. The pharmaceutical industry is regulated in that fashion. The same must apply to the GM industry.
Opponents of GM foods are lobbying to have any food that has been modified by gene- engineering to be labelled, so that consumers can decide whether to buy and use. It is obvious that that approach rests on the premise that people have already decided (or have been pre-conditioned) that GM foods are bad or dangerous and to be avoided. It doesn’t take very deep psychology to realize that the act of labelling in itself sends the message that GM foods are to be rejected. That approach counts on unthinking suspicion and fear. Not a healthy tactic.
Labelling is not the answer. Many items cannot be labelled appropriately and adequately. Also, according to a study published in the National Geographic, an estimated 85 per cent of all foods consumed in the United States now contains genetically modified food organisms. The same undoubtedly applies in Canada.
The answer is also not blind faith. It behooves us all to become more educated about genetic engineering and to insist that our governments have strict and effective testing and approval processes in place.
Morris Haugg is a member of the Amherst News Community Editorial Panel.