To eat or not to eat?

The Amherst News - - OP-ED - Mor­ris Haugg is a mem­ber of the Amherst News Com­mu­nity Ed­i­to­rial Panel

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 droughtre­sis­tant, 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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.