Genetic Engineering

There are various names for this process: biotechnology, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), genetically enhanced food, transgenic food or frankenfood.

It is important to know that genetic engineering (GE or GMO) is not the same as regular, traditional plant breeding. In agriculture, farmers and plant breeders have been changing crops for centuries by selecting the best seeds each year so that eventually plants can be very different from their ancestors. Breeding hybrids is combining traits from the SAME SPECIES. Genetic engineering is entirely different. GE is a process of manipulating single genes directly by cutting them out of one organism and inserting them into another.

The common GE crops in Canada — corn, canola, soybeans, sugar beets and potatoes — have genes inserted into them that either produce toxins to kill pests or to make them resistant to herbicides.

GMOs and Taste

The world’s food system rests on a shrinking genetic base. Not only does this loss of diversity lead to increased disease and a decreasing ability to adapt, but it also encourages an industrialized system where food that grows efficiently and transports easily is chosen over food with diversity, variation, and ultimately taste!

GMOs and Ecological Impacts

It is important that the wider implications of GMOs on both the Canadian and global ecosystems be taken into consideration.

Organic agriculture models its practice on ecological systems and on the understanding that change in one aspect of the food chain affects the entire ecological balance, but genetically engineering’s focus on the short term could be creating more problems than it does solutions.

Genetically engineered crops lead to increased herbicide use. According to a report released by the Northwest Science and Environmental Policy Center, the planting of 550 million acres of genetically engineered (GE) corn, soybeans and cotton in the United States since 1996 has increased pesticide use by about 50 million pounds.

The report draws on official U.S. Department of Agriculture data on pesticide use by crop and state. The report is entitled “Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use in the United States: The First Eight Years”.

Many farmers have had to spray incrementally more herbicides on GE acres in order to keep up with shifts in weeds toward tougher-to-control species, coupled with the emergence of genetic resistance in certain weed populations.

“For years weed scientists have warned that heavy reliance on herbicide tolerant crops would trigger ecological changes in farm fields that would incrementally erode the technology’s effectiveness. It now appears that this process began in 2001 in the United States in the case of herbicide tolerant crops,” according to Charles Benbrook Ph.D., author of the report.

A Cornell University study of nearly 500 Chinese farmers who were among the first in the world to plant genetically modified cotton to resist bollworms revealed that cost savings reaped in the first few years evaporated once secondary pests began attacking the crops. Within seven years, the farmers needed to use as much pesticide as they would have on conventional plots – and were spending more money than other farmers because GM cotton seeds are more expensive.

GMOs and Labelling

In Canada, there’s no law requiring that a food be labelled when it contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Chances are very high, that you’ve regularly eaten genetically modified food without realizing it. It all sounds so wonderfully simple, “oh, let’s label everything”, because most people believe that genetically modified products are only in the fruit and vegetable aisle. In reality, GMOs are everywhere – they’re not just single-ingredient products. “Most of them are showing up in your cereals, your flours, your cake mixes, your pancake mixes… so labelling is not simple,” says Jenny Hilliard, vice-president of the Consumers’ Association of Canada.

Download “A Canadian Consumer’s Guide to ingredients which may have been genetically engineered: How to become a detective in your own food system” courtesy of the Canadian Biotech Action Network

GMOs and Eliminating World Hunger

The motivation of biotechnology companies claiming that they will “feed the world” is suspect. They are selling their GE seeds in developing countries for scarce hard currency, and the requirement for specific pesticides further strains poor countries’ economies. The history of aid to developing countries is littered with cases where a technological solution was proposed for a problem that had its roots in economic inequity, lack of resources or education, or poor administration.

The problem of world hunger is not one of production. World hunger is a problem of politics, distribution and waste. Solving global hunger involves training in sustainable agriculture, better resource distribution and land reform. Biotechnology reinforces unsustainable farming practices.

Carlo Petrini – Founder of Slow Food on GMOs

“Feeding people is much more than giving them calories, fats and carbohydrates. It is aiming for their well-being, which includes not only what we consume but also the environment where we live. From this point of view GMOs have already clearly shown that they don’t produce more than conventional crops, they are hard to market, uninteresting to taste, poorer in terms of nutrition, dangerous for the environment and biodiversity, and insecure. The point is how they can have spread so much.”

David Suzuki – An environmentalist on GMOs 

“We are doing ourselves and future generations a disservice by rushing to get GM crops into the fields, not only because of the ecological implications, but also because focusing on this technology ignores the fundamental issues of food supply and distribution.”  

Jamie Kennedy – A chef on GMOs

“Farmed fish are bad enough in my view, but the thought of genetically modified fish makes me want to stop cooking.” 

Craig Holdrege – A biologist on GMOs 

“We have scarcely begun to understand all that nature has to teach us about the bounty of the earth, and it would be a shame to re-engineer the teacher before we have learned what she knows.”

HRH Prince Charles – A member of the Royal family on GMOs 

“Manipulating Nature is, at best, an uncertain business. If all the money invested in agriculture biotechnology over the last fifteen years had been invested in developing and disseminating genuinely sustainable techniques – those that work with, rather than against, the grain of Nature  we would have seen extraordinary, and genuinely sustainable, progress.” 

Even though we are capable of transplanting a gene from one species to another we are not yet capable of predicting or containing the results, creating a threat to our natural and agricultural biodiversity. When pollen from GE fields drifts miles down the road and unknowingly pollinates certified organic fields, farmers risk losing their certification and being unable to sell their crop as organic.

Supporting certified organic agriculture goes hand in hand with support of a non-GMO food system.

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