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Genetically Modified Food: A Field of Dreams?

This event was held on Wednesday, February 9, 2000, sponsored by the St. Lawrence Centre Forum in cooperation with Science for Peace, the Toronto Food Policy Council and the Toronto Board of Health. Panellists were: Edwin Daniel (Science for Peace, Professor Emeritus, Dept. Biomedical Sciences, McMaster University), Peter Hannam (President, First Line Seeds, Ontario Farmer), Rod MacRae (Food policy consultant; co-author of Real Food for a Change), and Bart Bilmer (Biotechnology Officer, Canadian Food Inspection Agency).

This was an enormously successful event. The entire auditorium at the St. Lawrence Centre was filled ( >500 people). Ed Daniel, who is also the co-chair of the Science for Peace Working Group on Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering, began the presentations and outlined the a number aspects of GM foods that warrant concern. These included the unpredictable outcomes of introducing novel genetic elements into plants for large scale use, the probability of transmission between plants varieties and the lack of government regulations controlling the use of GM foods. This latter point is particularly pertinent given that the European Union last week, passed a motion which essentially states that “GM producers.. .should not be held legally responsible if their food turned out to be harmful for humans or the environment” (The Guardian, April 20, 2000; Vol. 162/No. 17). We learn several pages later in the same issue that an employee at a U.K.-based seed company had been found guilty of altering data at in order to make a particular crop appear to perform better than it actually did. Given the reliance of the Canadian regulatory agencies on data concerning yields and safety provided by the seed companies, these issues are particularly important.

Countering Ed Daniel’s position, Peter Hannam outlined the beneficial aspects of a number of GM plants in which he has experience. His main position was that the modifications introduced produced varieties of plants which were extremely resistant to pests and are therefore beneficial to farmers in Canada and indeed around the world. He also argued that use of these plants had the desirable effect of reducing overall chemical inputs, specifically in the context of pest control. Finally, he discussed the other potential beneficial uses such as the introduction of rice varieties which contained unique nutrients such as vitamin A. This, he proposed, would be of great benefit to populations existing on limited diets deficient in good sources of these nutrients.

Following the very technical description by Bart Bilmer, of the regulatory process for approving GM foods in Canada, Rod MacRae spent the remaining portion of the panellists’ time describing a large number of data that refute the predictions of the benefits of GM foods. He pointed out that analyses of large scale usage did not show increase in crop yields nor a decrease in pesticide use. In fact, many examples opposite to these predictions can be found. These are well documented and quantified in his co-authored book.

The extremely proactive audience at this event asked a wide range of questions, most of them biased against genetic modification of plants and food for human consumption. It was also pointed out that the concentration of patent rights in the same companies that control seed and food distribution as well as pesticide and energy production create a dangerous situation for many populations on the planet who have already been marginalized due to aggressive agricultural and economic policies of the northern nations. In addition, it was suggested to Bart Bilrner that introduction of modified foods to populations living in poverty was unlikely to change their overall lack of health since the lack of a reasonable diet is but a symptom of the problem of poverty. Readers are encouraged to look at the Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology Working Group Web Site for more information and action in this area.

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