Mutant madness
Let’s resist the temptation to label all genetically modified food as Frankenfood

Brian Flemming

ONE DEFINING characteristic of the information-rich Internet age is that too many people know too much about too many things that aren’t true.

This trait is most noticeable in approaches to genetically modified foods. People who don’t know their DNA from their RNA seem to be the first to rush to judgment.

So far, Canada has avoided much of the mad-ness that has engulfed other countries. One trusts Canadians will continue to avoid being stampeded by the herds of “independent” pro-or-anti-genetically modified minds into taking premature positions until a balanced debate has taken place.

Unlike Europe, where the genetically modified food struggle is now more about passion than science, Canada still has the luxury of time for detached debate. As the debate heats up, opinion leaders have a more important part than usual to play in keeping the conversation civil.

For example, the waters will be miserably muddied if the Canadian media follow their British cousins and routinely start describing all genetically modified products as “Frankenstein food” or “Frankenfood.” These scare tactics have caused 99 per cent of Britons to believe all genetically modified food to be dangerous. By next year, no British farmer will even be growing genetically modified crops.

Two thirds of groceries altered

Even though Canadians seem to accept that two-thirds of their supermarket purchases have been genetically modified, large food exporters like McCain Foods have already announced they will no longer use genetically modified potatoes because of public (i.e. European) worries.

Last May, George Weston Ltd., Canada’s largest food distributor, said it would “bow to popular will” by labeling all genetically modified foods – and passing the cost of so doing to the customer. But no Canadian food company has completely removed genetically modified foods from its shelves, as Britain’s largest supermarket chain did.

As the controversy gathers steam, Canadians should not lose sight of how good its current food regulatory system is. Accordingly, the provenance of emotional calls for increased regulation should be carefully examined before such cries are heeded.

Existing regulations, for example, already require food processors and distributors to advertise the presence of genetically modified organisms if the alternation has a known health impact. Thus, proteins causing allergic reactions must be noted. On top of this, all genetically modified foods approved by the health directorate of Ottawa’s Health Protection Branch had to undergo rigorous testing to ensure their safety

Astonishingly the foods that are not at present regulated in Canada are the so-called “organic” or “natural” ones. Accordingly, those pricey supermarket items like organic veggies and “free run” eggs are not regulated, unlike the many products on the shelves containing Canada’s most famous genetically modified product.- canola.

Many of the same people who savagely slag genetically modified food will blithely pay through the nose for “organics” that may have been grown using sewer sludge as fertilizer or cultivated and then labeled as “wild.” Opinion leaders should expose the possible abuses of the “organic” growers before slamming the already tightly-controlled genetically modified food crowd.

And, while we’re at It, how about forcing manufacturers to tell in detail how much salt, fat, modified corn starch soy protein isolate or monosodium glutamate is in that can of soup on my kitchen shelf. And could we be told of its nutritional value while we’re at it?

On the flip side, there are legitimate environmental and scientific concerns involving genetically modified foods. For starters, we should know whether genes from herbicide-resistant crops will create “werewolf weeds” that might be difficult to eradicate. Or whether “good” insects will be destroyed by genetically modified crop pollen.

These and other issues, must be thrashed Out in an open and transparent way within the current regulatory framework if Canada is to avoid the demagogic fear-mongering Europe has been wallowing in for years. The objective must be to give intelligent consumers enough balanced information to allow them, not the government, to make basic choices.

Pay for the privilege

By Its very nature, this approach will lead to the emergence of a variety of niche food markets, each appealing to different consumers for diverse reasons. Most Canadians will probably continue current buying patterns while those who want more genetically modified product information, or assurances of proper organic farming practices, will simply have to pay more for that privilege.

Meanwhile everyone should avoid characterizing all anti-genetically modified advocates as saintly do-gooders in Birkenstocks or all agribusiness folks or genetically modified farmers as people with cloven hooves hidden in their Guccis or wellies.

Even Saint David Suzuki, who has a doctorate in genetics, approves of genetically modified food in principle.

He simply wants the game slowed a bit and for the shouting to stay below 100 decibels as Canadians decide which genetically modified path to follow. For once, every Canadian can agree with Suzuki.