Mongering fear or encouraging thoughtful dialogue?

Gary W. Kenny

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In a letter to the editor in last week’s The Post, a reader took exception to my Oct. 31 column on genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
The reader’s accusation of “fear-mongering” suggests that he didn’t read my column carefully. But let’s for now put aside his charge and look at the substance of his letter.
Humans have been manipulating plant genetics for millennia: Indeed, humans have long selected and bred varieties of plants and animals to obtain the best yields and durable resistance to diseases and pests. This is conventional breeding. It builds on natural genetic variations within a species, selecting for desirable traits over time. It is a process that mimics natural selection. Many wonderful foods we rely on today were developed using this method. Examples include teosinte, a grass native to Central America, which was developed into corn, and cross-breeding of cows that produce more milk to build high-yielding dairy herds.
Modern GMOs are different. Genetic material is directly modified by humans by inserting a gene into an organism and altering its genetic makeup. This process produces a transgenic organism that expresses a foreign gene, which is not native to that organism.
It is this latter form of genetic modification that is controversial and that I addressed in my earlier column. Without fulsome independent study of the risks, many understandably worry that such artificial tampering with nature could go terribly wrong.
There’s no “a priori” reason to assume that GMOs are unsafe, nor is there any evidence after decades of use: In my earlier column I was careful not to make any snap judgements about the safety of GMOs. I merely questioned whether we can reasonably assume they are safe. I did so because safety studies are mostly undertaken by their manufacturers or the regulatory agencies of governments that are often lobbied by, and financially benefit from, those same companies.
The reader is correct: no one can definitively say GMOs are unsafe. But no one can categorically say they are safe, either. Just because there may not yet be strong evidence that particular GM foods are unsafe, it doesn’t mean problems won’t occur in the future. So the sensible question becomes, are we as consumers comfortable eating GM foods based solely on assurances provided by those who stand to financially benefit from them? Each of us must answer that question for ourselves.
We have to feed an ever-expanding population on this planet: The comment presumes that, without GMOs, there won’t be enough food in the world to feed future populations. This is incorrect. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Association (FAO) and many other independent authorities on hunger dispelled this notion long ago.
Hunger is caused by poverty and inequality, not scarcity. According to the FAO, over the past two decades the rate of global food production has increased faster than the rate of global population growth. The world already produces more than 1.5 times enough food to feed everyone on the planet. That’s enough to feed 10 billion people, the population peak expected by 2050.
Food wastage is another major cause of hunger. According to the FAO, an astonishing one-third of all food produced for human use, valued at $1 trillion, is lost or wasted each year.
The reader’s belief that the world needs GMOs to feed a burgeoning population is precisely what profit-greedy biotech companies want us to think.
Omitted by the reader was any mention of the lack of respect for consumers – people like you and me – that government regulatory agencies like Health Canada continually demonstrate. Calls for legislation to label GM foods as GMO or containing GMOs are ignored.
An estimated 75-85 per cent of processed foods on offer in our supermarkets contain GMOs. They include foods many of us eat regularly: breakfast cereals, yogurt, soft drinks, frozen entrees, salad dressings, condiments like ketchup, and many more. Particularly ubiquitous is high-fructose corn syrup, a derivative of GM corn, which will likely be present in most of the bottles in your kitchen.
Without labelling, it is virtually impossible to know what we are eating. The reader might not care about government regulators disregarding his right to make a free and informed choice, but many eaters do.
Back to the reader’s charge of fear-mongering. In a world increasingly marked by divisiveness, accusations like this do more to stifle than encourage thoughtful, constructive dialogue on such important public policy issues as GMOs and food safety. Sad. One would hope for more.
Gary W. Kenny is retired from a career in international human rights and development and is a writer residing in rural Grey County.

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