The great GMO debate
Genetically modified organisms — life forms whose DNA has been altered in a way that would not occur naturally — are a divisive subject. Some argue that we shouldn’t mess with Mother Nature, while others see them as the solution to food-security woes. Sam
The March Against Monsanto sees organic-food activists sweeping through downtown Ottawa each spring, dispensing antiGMO arguments aimed at the U.S.-based agro-business giant. In response, a counter-protest dubbed the March Against Myths has emerged. There might be a handful on one side, dozens on the other; as with any protest, there are both heated moments and peaceful exchanges. But this year, as the local anti-GMO movement struggles to find a leader, things appear to be changing.
Andrea Palmieri has spent time with people on both sides of the GMO debate, and she is part of that change. Palmieri, who now leads the March Against Myths, is a bit of a contradiction. In fact, she was once told that her job in the natural-health industry was akin to “a vegan working in a butcher shop.” As a food-science student, she couldn’t help sharing her passion for her studies with her co-workers at an Ottawa health-food store. But at a certain point, they had heard enough. Palmieri says her boss described her “scientific mind” as “a threat to the industry”, and recalls how her manager’s boss perused her Facebook page and noticed that she was organizing a counter-protest to the March Against Monsanto. She says they “didn’t like that” because the majority of the store’s customers and staff support the anti-Monsanto argument. Eventually, they issued her an ultimatum: leave her schooling at the door, or leave altogether. She ultimately chose the latter, and she hasn’t looked back.
Palmieri calls herself a science-literacy activist and, more personally, a lover of “learning and potatoes.” She holds a degree in food science from Carleton and a food safety certificate from Conestoga, and in addition to leading the march, she is active in the VeganGMO community — a blog and discussion space curated by science enthusiasts and herbivores alike. She champions GMOs and believes that more people, including vegans, could stand to entertain a pro-GMO stance.
So how does one go from being a proponent of the naturalwellness community, which typically sympathizes with organic agriculture, to flying the biotech flag? “On the surface, the naturalhealth industry has good intentions,” says Palmieri. “There’s the rejection of the standard American diet in replacement of a healthy, whole-foods-based diet to improve quality of life and prevent certain diseases. But the experiences I had working at a health-food store for three years exposed me to the dark side of the business and its motives — making claims based on appeals to nature and emotion rather than on fact and reason.”
The ideology of the natural-health industry tends to harmonize with that of vegans, but Palmieri’s retreat from meat aims to marry compassion with objective rationale. She and her VeganGMO peers believe that a rational approach to biotechnology can be maintained while addressing animal justice. Examples include growing nutritionally sound meat and dairy products from animal stem cells in a lab, fortifying protein alternatives, and curbing damage to animal habitats through reduced dependency on pesticide use.
But it’s tough to imagine the majority of vegans putting any more faith in the biotech industry than they do in the factory farms that produce much of our meat and dairy. The grassroots ideology of veganism inherently rejects the mainstream food industry. Plus, the idea of growing meat in a petri dish tends to make one’s skin crawl.
Politics — personal or otherwise — versus science is at the heart of the GMO debate, and it’s a key argument for those opposed to genetic engineering. Distrust for corporate monoliths like Monsanto stems from a history of public controversy surrounding their patents on seeds and alleged bullying of farmers. One famous Canadian case saw Monsanto sue Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser for planting GMO seeds without a
licence. Though the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Monsanto, Schmeiser became a poster child for farmers’ rights and opposition to big-business biotech. Such cases have manifested themselves in a condemnation of the technology that companies like Monsanto represent, but Palmieri and her peers aren’t interested in defending the company’s business practices, either.
“As to the role of corporations in the food supply, there’s obviously need for government regulation to prevent monopolies, but it really isn’t an argument against GMOs,” says Nick Robinson, a physics undergrad who participates in the annual March Against Myths and has written about the issue for The Fulcrum, the University of Ottawa’s English student paper. Robinson maintains that the inherent potential of genetic engineering can’t be judged solely by its commercial affiliations.
“If you don’t want corporate monopolies, it should be made easier for small companies and NGOs to develop GMOs. More money should be funnelled into public universities and institutions so that public scientists can develop them for the public good,” he says.
But years of anti-GMO rhetoric and mistrust have contributed to widespread public belief that there’s no scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs. While the bulk of public and independent research has found that they are harmless, anti-GMO advocates cite studies that suggest otherwise. But research is only part of the equation.
“People aren’t swayed by facts,” says Palmieri, who insists that GMO crops go through more rigorous testing than any other agricultural crop in history. She says the anti-GMO movement is not unified by scientific consensus. Rather, long-term unintended consequences on human health and the environment are the primary concern for anti-GMO advocates, who see the technology as bad news for small farmers.
There’s the transparency issue too — just last year, the United States passed a bill requiring food to carry labels listing ingredients that had been genetically modified. Most people want to know what they’re eating and want the right to choose GMO or organic foods for themselves.
Hortense Kailo is an Ottawa-based anti-GMO advocate whose interest in GMOs is centred on the social implications of “recreating life” and the responsibility that comes with doing so. “We are told that, legally, corporations can own life and also that those with money or power can modify life. Our ignorance of respect for living things is matched only by our arrogance in thinking we can reorder a complex system, beyond our ability to grasp,” she says. “I respect science and empirical evidence, but I also have the sense to look at long-term consequences, at how scientific decisions impact spiritual, organic, evolving beings who are not ready for these powers at this time.”
This is where the argument gets dicey: many anti-GMO advocates make arguments based on their personal moral compass. That the technology “plays God” is a concern among several religious groups, which over the past couple of years have gone viral with the slogan “GMO = God Move Over.” How can such viewpoints be adequately pitted against the necessity to feed billions cheaply?
The need to find common ground is why the duelling marches are key. Sure, there’s some mudslinging on both sides. Participants in the March Against Monsanto are always accusing Palmieri and her crew of being affiliated with Monsanto, and many refuse to hear otherwise. Meanwhile, members of the March Against Myths say there’s almost no consistency in who leads the Ottawa March Against Monsanto year to year.
The result? Distrust on both sides, creating a situation where lasting, meaningful exchange is difficult.
And it seems to be getting worse. At press time, it was unclear whether the March Against Monsanto would happen, as local anti-GMO advocates were struggling to find a leader for the event.
Palmieri says that in the past, marches have led to good conversations with open-minded activists, some of whom she remains in contact with to this day. “What I’ve learned is that whether one is for or against this technology, we all share similar concerns and priorities,” she says. “We care about reducing the impact agriculture has on the environment, the integrity and safety of our food, feeding starving and malnourished populations, and developing sustainable farming methods to ensure an available food supply for future generations. The only difference is that we’ve arrived at different conclusions on how to achieve these goals.”
Ottawa might just be the place to find common ground. It’s never had a particularly strong anti-GMO movement, and Carleton University offers the only food-science program in Canada that encompasses biology, chemistry, biochemistry, and the politics of the food industry. We’re home to the Experimental Farm too — a hot spot for GMO development that makes no apologies about its biotech work, and no one is walking those bucolic grounds with placards.
Furthermore, Ottawans have made clear their opposition to building a new hospital on the land. It seems we’d rather preserve the grounds as farming space; by doing so, we’re nodding to agricultural history, but we’re also saying yes to progress.
Placarding Parliament Participants at last year’s March Against Myths hold signs that invite passersby to learn more about the benefits of genetically modified organisms. The event began as a response to the annual March Against Monsanto, which...