Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Arctic apple just the tip of the iceberg

Health Canada's approval of the genetically modified Arctic apple earlier this month has reinvigorated discussion of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in Canada. The whole genetic modification question is one of those hot-button ethical/medical/environmental issues that many people find difficult to decide on, and I must confess I am among them.
I could easily dismiss the Arctic apple in particular because its value seems so flimsy and vague. Five years and millions of dollars in the making, the Arctic apple has had its DNA tweaked with the sole purpose of ensuring that it does not turn brown when sliced. Now, most people I know just buy an apple an eat it; turning brown is just not an issue. If you want to put sliced or diced apple into a fruit salad or such like, then you just coat them in lemon juice. This method has worked fine for centuries.
The only application I can see for a non-browning apple slice is for those extortionately priced pre-packaged apple slices supermarkets now sell (and which apparently employ a cocktail of chemicals for the purpose), or for fancy garnishes in upper-end restaurants (which I have always assumed use lemon juice, but then, who knows?) As far as I can see, this is not going to solve the world hunger problem, not is it even going to cut down on the use of chemical fertilizers or insecticides, or to improve our nutritional intake. This is culinary frippery and supply-directed marketing, pure and simple. It is the tail wagging the dog.
However, the GMO/bioengineering issue in general is not so easily dismissed. As every article I have ever read on the subject always points out, GMO crops are approved and endorsed by Health Canada, the World Health Organization, the US Academy of Sciences and the American Medical Association. Even if we not necessarily aware of it, they have been with us now for over 20 years (at least in North America). Over 2,000 scientific studies have concluded that GMOs pose no greater health risk than any other food, and only a handful of studies suggest otherwise, and most of those have since been retracted or are at least hotly contested. Vitamin A-enriched golden rice in particular has been touted as a huge humanitarian boon (although its claims are hotly contested and, frankly, anything owned and distributed by Monsanto should be treated very skeptically).
My gut feeling still tells me to be wary of GMOs (and, where food is concerned, the gut should be listened to). While they may not necessarily apply to the Arctic apple, there are several potential drawbacks to GMOs that I have not been able to shrug off: many GMOs have antibiotic features built into them, which over time may reduce the effectiveness of prescribed antibiotics on humans (a trend we have already seen, although its cause remains vague); added and mixed up proteins in some GMOs may exacerbate the growing allergy problems the world seems to be experiencing; modified genes from GMOs may escape into the wild, potentially resulting in herbicide-resistant "superweeds" or genetically-enhanced organisms that can out-compete native populations, leading to species extinctions; typically, the companies that develop and patent GMO seeds (of which Monsanto is the largest and most notorious) are the same companies that develop and patent the pesticides and herbicides to which the unique seeds are resistant, creating a closed proprietorial system; etc.
This is not an isolated or minor issue. An estimated 90% of the corn, soybeans and cotton grown in America is now genetically modified (and corn and soya are in everything these days), and many other GM crops are produced in smaller quantities. In Canada, GM varieties of corn, soya, sugar beet and canola (all of which are also used in animal feed) are now widely planted, and many other GM crops are approved but not actively farmed - yet.
Currently 64 countries around the world - including the 28 countries in the European Union, Japan, Australia, Brazil, Russia, and even China - require mandatory labelling of genetically modified foods. In North America, the source of most of the world genetically modified crops, there is no such requirement (currently, Vermont is the only US state that has recently brought in GMO labelling, although some 28 other states apparently have pending legislation on the matter).
Even after 20 years, my feeling (yes, my gut feeling) is that there may well turn out to be some long-term damage resulting from the practice. This is obviously not a rigorously scientific position, but it seems to me that, at the very least, we should be labelling this stuff, and giving people the right to a choice.
The B.C. bioengineer-turned-farmer Neal Carter, the creator of the Arctic apple, obviously, does not want to go down this route, stressing that "we don't want to demonize the technology". But some of his other comments on the subject are perhaps more pertinent: "If we put a GM label on them, basically we are capitulating. The anti-GM crowd has won." For him, this seems to be just a (potentially lucrative) game. I don't think we want to play that game. Just because we can do something, doesn't mean that we should.

No comments: