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The ABCs of GMOs

Advocates of genetically modified foods say the scare stories
are myths and that their crops could feed the world
By Caleb Fox

In one way or another, say many food producers, most of the foods we eat have been modified. (Photo by Caleb Fox)

‘IT’S SOMETHING you’re born with.”

Randy Radau is talking about the work he does on his 1,500 acres of farmland in the heart of rural Alberta. He has spent his career feeding people, and through it all he has seen many shifts in the industry, all aimed at improving crop production, he says. One of the biggest leaps forward has been the creation of genetically modified organisms, which has made it possible to change plants at the molecular level.

Even though the creation of GMOs has offered significant benefits to farmers and the food industry, the science is something that has been clouded in controversy, which has created public uncertainty, and a large consumer pushback.

Some people have voiced criticisms of Monsanto’s perceived proprietary aggressiveness – farmers in Ontario being sued for violating patent because Monsanto seeds blow onto their land and take root. Agricultural experts in other countries have expressed fear that the big companies’ monopolies have reduced the variety of crops to the point that a blight could wipe out not just a crop but an entire species

Yet, GMOS could do a lot to alleviate world hunger, Radau says.

“Our population is growing exponentially, so we have to improve our farming methods exponentially along with it. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”

I: The Lab

Before genetically modified crops end up on grocery shelves, or even growing in farmers’ fields, they’re born in a lab. The science of GMOs is something that Henry An understands better than most.

As an associate professor of resource economics in the University of Alberta faculty of Agricultural Life and Environmental Studies, he studies the adoption of agricultural technologies, particularly biotechnology, from an economic standpoint, though his degree is in molecular genetics.

“The first thing I would say is that even just the term, ‘genetic modification,’ is not very useful,” he says. “People call it ‘Frankenfood,’ and that, of course, makes it very scary sounding.

“In nature, genes hop from species to species on their own.”

The genetic engineering that takes place in the lab just recreates a natural process, An adds. But it takes out the randomness of nature, allowing scientists to insert particular genes that will benefit a crop.

“I think that’s what people are hung up on: the fact that there are actual scientists who are deliberately inserting a gene into a plant. People tend to think that random occurrence in nature is preferential to it being done deliberately … People have this idea that if it’s natural it can’t be bad, which is patently false because there’s a lot of natural things out there that will kill us.”

An points out that genetic modification is any change that occurs in an organism’s DNA over time. This includes change resulting from breeding, the way dogs and cast are bred for desirable characteristics

“A lot of existing species already have foreign DNA.”

Henry An’s lab at U of A. Most people don’t understand the science behind genetically modified foods, he says. (Caleb Fox)

However, what most people are thinking of when they talk about GMOs are foods that have been genetically engineered, that have had DNA from another organism inserted into their genetic code because that foreign DNA offers a desirable attribute.

Of course, there are reasons so much time, money and effort have been invested in the research and development of genetically engineered foods: they offer higher crop yields, reduced pesticide use, increased income for farmers, and lower food prices for consumers.

So why has there been such controversy surrounding GMOs?

“I think that most people just don’t understand the science,” An says. “But that’s true about pretty much anything.

“I understand this very narrow sliver of science because that’s what I study … but I don’t understand any other type of science, to be honest. So, most consumers don’t understand it; they don’t really understand how food is produced. They don’t really understand what labels mean, and so they become, not surprisingly, somewhat risk-averse.”

Part of the problem, according to An, is the fault of big bio-tech companies like Monsanto.

“One of the first genetically modified genetically engineered products that was commercially available was something known as the ‘Flavr Savr Tomato. When this tiny company – just a bunch of scientists – released their product, they actually labelled it very prominently as genetically modified. At the time, nobody knew what that was and there was no negative connotation associated with it. Fast forward a couple years, they sold their company to Monsanto, who, doing a lot of consumer research, came to the conclusion that people didn’t like the term and were afraid of it. So they took off all the labels that said it was genetically modified. That sort of led to where we are today, where consumers believe that big companies, like Monsanto, are trying to hide something by not labelling GMOs.”

Consumers also hear arguments against genetically engineered foods from people in the media, who are may be trusted voices – like famous actors and actresses – “who say things that they don’t really know much about.”

Still, An says, it’s understandable that consumers will oppose GM foods when they hear negative information that they don’t know how to corroborate or clarify, especially at a time when people are becoming less trustful of scientists and experts.

II: The Farm

The result of the scientists’ laboratory work is a simple seed. Once scientists have developed a crop with the desired enhancements, the resulting seed can be sent to farmers like Radau, who plant it, grow it, and harvest the results.

Radau grows a variety of plants, including genetically modified Roundup ready canola. The public often takes a dim view of Roundup, and of Monsanto, the giant chemical company that manufactures it – something Radau says is not entirely fair.

“Roundup is a non-selective herbicide that has been around for years and years,” he says. “It actually was developed for use as a water softener in water treatment plants, and they discovered that a side effect of it was that it got rid of the algae in the water.”

When scientists saw that Roundup could kill algae, they began testing it as a weed killer.

“Because it was such a broad-spectrum plant killer, they thought they could use it to kill almost any weed around the farm,” Radau says. “They found a few plants that were resistant to Roundup and transferred that gene into plants that we prefer to grow, like canola. And so, now, you can spray the herbicide on these resistant plants and everything else gets killed, but your crop survives without any adverse effects.”

Previously, canola “was a crop that had lots of weed problems, and now has almost none.”

“Our yields have doubled since genetically modified canola has come out. So it’s become a much more profitable crop to grow and it takes less herbicide. Roundup is a very safe, non-toxic herbicide, and it’s much better than the old chemicals we used to have to throw on canola.”

These crops – with their increased yield and reduced dependence on herbicides – have been grown and consumed for decades without any adverse effects, he adds.

GMO foods have been around for some three decades with no adverse health effects, says farmer Randy Radau. (Caleb Fox)

“Genetically modified crops have been around for about 30 years actually, and there have been no adverse effects. People don’t realize that they’ve been around for a long, long time and there have never been any problems, but it’s just that people, for whatever reason, are more hung up on it now than ever before, and we’re quite surprised.”

He points out that more or less everyone has been consuming GMOs, whether they realize it or not.

“In the U.S., for example, pretty much every hog, chicken, dairy cow, and beef animal is either fed genetically modified corn or soybean. That’s the basics of their diet. It’s all from those plants and there have never been any adverse effects. Animals die all the time but none of them have ever died from genetically modified ingredients.

“With all of the negativity that’s been out there, you would think someone would have grown a third ear by now.”

III: The Shelf

After farmers grow genetically engineered seeds into fields full of crops, the harvest is turned into commercial products, which end up on shelves in grocery stores – shelves filled by retailers like Andrew Anderson, Manager at the Safeway store in Northgate Mall.

He has worked for the company for the last 27 years, and understands the intricacies of consumer habits and the stigma that can follow products that have been genetically modified.

“The consumer doesn’t like the fact that potentially a scientist has modified a gene or something,” he says, adding that the biggest barrier to a wide embrace of such products is a lack of understanding.

“If you explained to the consumer exactly what has been modified and what the benefits are, you know, I think they’d be convinced. I think there is a viable future for it.”

Anderson says he sees important benefits for his business from genetically modified products, particularly in terms of increasing shelf life.

“For instance, you can take a strawberry and, as opposed to a seven-day shelf life, you can give it a 14-day shelf life, just by modifying some genes so it doesn’t decompose as fast.

However, products like baby food are “very, very, very delicate” topics.

“Everything is best-before, everything is date checked, that sort of thing.”

However, he says, there are benefits for retailers “if you can take a baby food, and extend the shelf-life on it whilst quality and nutrition all remain the same.”

Those benefits end up being passed on to the consumer, Anderson says. The cost of throwing away food that isn’t sold before its expiry date is worked into what we pay for groceries. Less product in the garbage means lower prices for shoppers, and similarly, fresh food may last longer in the pantry or fridge.

For customers and retailers to reap the benefits of GMOs, though, Anderson says, their public image needs to change.

“I think it needs to be renamed,” he says. “If you were to call it ‘organically modified’ or something along that line …” he lets the sentence trail off and smiles. “You might appeal to the consumer with that name.”

IV: The Knowledge

An says that the scientific community is not in unanimous agreement about the safety of GMOs. (But complete agreement, he points out, is rare in science.) But it’s very close. He cites a recent report from the American Academy for the Advancement of Science that indicates almost 90 per cent of scientists agree that genetically engineered foods are safe.

“I believe, based on my reading of the literature, that there are no safety differences between genetically engineered foods and non-genetically engineered foods,” he says.

An says farmers are the best people to speak to the public about GMOs – though it may be difficult to convince them to play a more public role in the debate.

“I think consumers trust farmers a lot more than they trust scientists.”

Radau says he agrees that farmers need to help reconnect people with the agricultural process and foster a better understanding of agricultural science.

“One of our big problems is that people are so disconnected from the farm. It used to be that they either came from the farm or their uncle or their aunt or their grandpa had a farm. Now it’s two or three generations removed. So, they have never had any direct connection with where their food comes from.

“As farmers, we’re all trying at our level to educate the public. We’re trying to engage with the public and be an advocate for modern agriculture.

“You feel good when you’re you know doing something worthwhile. Feeding people is a worthwhile occupation.”

One of the problems with communicating the positive arguments about GMOs is that people are so far removed from the land. (Caleb Fox)

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