Volume 93, Issue 80

Thursday, March 2, 2000


Facing paranoia over our food

Facing paranoia over our food

By Clare Elias
Gazette Staff

The next trip to the grocery store could be filled with concern or possibly even paranoia over the contents of food.

Genetically Modified foods have recently become a hotbed of discussion in Europe and the debate surrounds the prospect of labelling the products genetically engineered for growing purposes. Many problems factor into this venture, such as cost, safety and defining what GM foods actually are.

"There shouldn't be anymore GM foods until we have a better understanding of these new drugs [used to engineer the product]," said Nunn, communications director for Greenpeace. He drew on the example of Solidimide, the controversial drug administered in the 1960s to older pregnant women which resulted in birth defects, to elicit his point that proper inspection is displaced to hurry the product to commercialization. "That was supposed to be the new wonder drug, but it instead caused birth defects."

There is a broad definition of what is a genetically modified food. It can span from cross-breeding to transgenetic genes, where one gene is injected into a host.

Corn, canola oil and soya are the most common crops which have been genetically modified with a seed called Round-Up. It is a non-selective herbicide which breaks down unwanted weeds and plants at the root, while making the crop resistant to other pesticides.

However, according to Thelma MacAdam, chair of the environment committee at the Health Action Network Society, there are approximately 40 different genetically engineered chemicals used by farmers which help minimize the growth of vines and the infestation of insects. They also help increase the flavour of the food.

"The problem is that these chemicals blow in the wind and are carried in the environment. There are dangers of putting them in the open field and once you do, it's like opening pandora's box – you can't put the lid back on."

Activist groups such as Greenpeace are concerned these foods have not been tested enough to ensure their health safety. Nunn said independent tests must be done on the genetically modified foods before we consume them. "Right now there are just too many moral and ethical questions when you introduce a new life into a food," Nunn said.

John Larsen, plant biotechnology officer of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said environmental testing was confined in release systems and has a limited environmental impact. "After undergoing tests in the confined area, the food is then applied for unconfined potential impact," he added.

"This type of technology reduces the amount of input and therefore money the farmers spend on their crops," he said, adding farmers would otherwise use many other pesticides to kill off the insects.

"We can never say everything is 100 per cent safe, but [genetically engineering foods] does do a lot of good," Larsen said.

Nunn said there was a need for consumers to be more informed of the food they ingest. He suggested this could be accomplished through the labelling of genetically engineered foods. "In the UK, they're starting to label the products as a result of consumer demand. This will help to keep the GM foods out of the market."

Nunn estimated the whole process of segregating and labelling genetically engineered foods would account for approximately one to two per cent of the final cost of the product.

Farmers would most likely bear the brunt of the labelling cost if the plan is ever initiated, said Terry Otto, director of Ontario Federation of Agriculture at the Ontario Farm Animal Council. "Farmers are always price takers and not price setters. We're not going to increase the price, but we're still going to pay for labelling."

Otto said the effort put into food production, if not using genetically modified organisms, would increase by 34 per cent.

"In the long-run, if the rest of the world [adopts labelling], then there's a very good chance all exports will be stopped." He explained this would result in a surplus of labelled products in Canada.

"Farmers really don't save that much by using [genetically modified organisms,] but if the products were better paid for, then maybe we would not use these chemicals at all. It's up to the consumer. [Canada] has the cheapest food in the world and we still want it cheaper. There would be more of a riot if the price of milk went up than gasoline."

Otto also added new technology is needed, especially as concerns over food depletion are increasingly becoming an issue. "The East Coast is depleting in fishing and the oceans are running out of proteins. These nutrients have to be produced somehow, otherwise what's going to happen?"

Jeri Kamenz, a farmer in Saskatoon and executive member of the science and technology department at the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, said labelling could either encompass six per cent of the products on the shelf or 80 per cent, depending on what qualifies as genetically modified.

"Everything you eat today has some cross-breeding in it, such as Flavour Savour Tomato. Just about everything you touch has in some way been modified."

The form of genetic modification which is up for the most debate is recombinant genetic testing, which accelerates food growth, but is not widely used. "The notion of labelling is therefore a problem. At what point does it help and at what point does it start to be meaningless?" Kamenz said.

He also added activist groups, such as Greenpeace, are building on the distrust and paranoia of the general public to serve their own purposes. "The links haven't been established to provide the best outcome for people. If the population could instantly see the consumer benefit, such as technology enhancing vitamin content, then it would be more acceptable. But Greenpeace is not in a position to talk about food, they are not science-based."

Presently, Lynn Lesage, media relations officer at the Health Protection Branch of Health Canada, said labelling would only be applied to products where significant nutritional changes have occurred and if there are any allergens detected.

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