Consumers opposed to GM don’t understand plant breeding

Breeder says the safety of genetically modified food will always be questioned because ‘there is always another question to ask.’  |  File photo

Everyone has eaten fruit and vegetables altered through traditional crossbreeding, ‘unless you gather all your food from the wild’: breeder

RED DEER — Consumer concern about the safety of genetically modified food stems from lack of understanding about plant breeding regardless of type, says an American corn breeder and professor at Cornell University.

Margaret Smith said people have been modifying crops through domestication, selection and cross breeding for about 200 years, and genetic modification is only the newest tool available to achieve it.

That’s one reason she prefers the term “genetic engineering” to the more common “genetic modification.”

The latter implies that plants have only recently been modified, when in fact they have changed over time to better suit human wants and needs.

For example, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, kohlrabi and cabbage all came from the same plant, the brassica oleracea. Years of selection created the variants now available.

“I think the GMO term is problematic, but I also think we’re stuck with it,” Smith said in a March 8 presentation at the Western Canadian Dairy Seminar.

She referred to a 2001 U.S. survey in which more than 60 percent of respondents said they had never eaten a traditionally crossbred fruit or vegetable, and more than 64 percent thought they had never eaten a GM fruit or vegetable.

“Unless you are gathering all your food from the wild,” said Smith, everyone has eaten fruits and vegetables altered through traditional crossbreeding.

As for GM content, there are few examples of fresh produce on the market today beyond some varieties of sweet corn, although a non-browning apple and potatoes engineered to resist black spot and late blight are pending.

She said 83 percent of the world’s soybeans, 29 percent of maize and 24 percent of canola are GM varieties.

About 60 percent of supermarket foods have ingredients from a GM variety, said Smith, although those ingredients are chemically identical to those that are non-GM.

The safety of GM food has always been a major consumer concern, said Smith, noting that studies to date have produced no credible evidence that existing GM food is harmful.

In an interview, she acknowledged that critics of GM food often question the credibility of studies or suggest they haven’t examined the right things.

“I would argue that we have looked. That does not say we’ve looked at everything, because you can’t,” she said. “I would never look somebody in the eye and say, ‘I guarantee you these are safe,’ be-cause our food and feed systems and our bodies, the way we take in nutrition, is also very complicated and very interactive.

“Whether it’s safe or not is also a function of what else are you eating, how much of it are you eating. There are a lot of questions and the reality is, you can always think of another question to ask.”

Smith also said consumers are concerned that the rights to GM crops belong to few.

In the United States, the 96 existing approvals of crops with GM traits are mostly held by Monsanto, Aventis, Syngenta, Dow and DuPont. Various planned mergers, involving Monsanto and Bayer, Syngenta and ChemChina and Dow and Dupont, if approved, would leave four main players in the field, Smith said.

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