Ottawa Magazine

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...
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...

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada