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

Ottawa Magazine - - NEWS -

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...

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