Divergence: If GM technology is safe, why don’t consumers trust it?

Food is tied to much more than the industries and science that produce it.

Its popular history is not in the plant breeding or the planting or the plants and animals themselves. It is in the preparation and the consumption.

And in large part, because of that, the rest of food’s story is based on trust.

Consumers trust that food’s route to their homes is safe, ethical and sustainable. While they don’t know every detail of its production and route through the food processing and distribution world, they do want a general feeling of safety.

This past fall, the American government signed into law an initiative that would require its agriculture department to develop a labelling standard for food that would capture the relationship between genetic modification and the food under the label.

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That was done largely to pre-empt a single state regulation that GM food ingredients be labeled in Vermont. And what happens in the United States has a way of trickling across the border.

Science in recent times used genetic modification to create bacteria that produce medications and drugs that save human lives, crops with built-in pesticides that reduce the need for more dangerous chemicals and improve farm sustainability and plants and animals that yield more efficiently and produce fewer pollutants.

People were using selective plant breeding in southwestern Asia 9,700 years ago to produce domestic varieties of wheat. Another cereal, corn, was derived by man from a plant called teosinte, which had tiny ears and few kernels. Today, next to wheat and rice, it is one of the food starch staples of modern society.

Selection of genetics through plant and animal breeding has generated all of the food that humans now rely on. Only since 1973 have we been able to manually adjust those genetic selections.

Since that time, the tools to make those changes are more refined and efficient, saving decades of cross-breeding time and the money.

After the 1973 breakthrough in genetic modification, the world stopped to take a breath as scientists, politicians and the media considered and analyzed the enormity of what had been achieved. In the space of a year, research into transgenics had come to a halt while society considered the potential ramifications on the planet’s ecology and on human health. A meeting of leading scientists in 1975 created rules around genetic modification research.

Five years later, the first GM bacteria patent was granted and approved for use. It was a bacteria that broke down oil after a spill.

In 1982, GM bacteria that produced synthesized insulin was approved. In the early 1990s, the Flavr Savr tomato was approved for sale and, after nearly a decade of testing, GM crops arrived, starting with B.t. insect resistance and followed in 1996 with glyphosate tolerance in soybean and then corn and canola.

Canadian researchers at the University of Guelph produced the Enviropig, a reduced phosphorous excreting animal, which was approved for commercial production but never released, and Canada is one of the first countries to approve genetically modified salmon and apples for production and consumption.

While science forms the basis for Canadian regulation, public acceptance does not necessary follow that same logical path.

Last fall, Health Canada released a report it commissioned to get a sense of Canadians’ opinions surrounding GM use in food production. The majority of Canadians have a poor understanding of the role of GM in their food, the study found. Their understanding of the processes have largely been shaped by negative or controversial media, both social and mainstream, and has been reinforced by non-governmental groups that claim a leading stake in the environment’s protection and anti-GM advocates. The findings suggest that Canadians’ understanding of science is low, and as a result, their trust in it is also low.

In this edition of The Western Producer, we look at some of these opinions, the science and realities of GM in Canada today.


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