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"Superfood": Genetic Modification and Labeling

Posted Nov 23 2008 12:00am

Genetically modified foods are the subject of a great debate. GM foods are classified as a "Novel food" by Health Canada, which is defined as “Foods resulting from a process not previously used for food” and “Products that do not have a history of safe use as a food”. According to Health Canada, “Genetic modification is any change to the heritable traits of an organism achieved by intentional manipulation”. Usually, DNA is taken from one species and introduced into another, to produce desired traits such as resistance to disease, pests or pesticides.

Traditionally, farmers achieved this by breeding certain crops together which survived better, or exhibited desirable traits. Genetic modification allows these changes to be made more accurately and quicker than traditional methods. However, to get the desired genetic material from one organism into another is not an easy task. Bacteria and viruses are commonly used to carry the DNA into the new cells, which raises all sorts of other issues.

In order to have a GM product approved, companies must submit detailed scientific data to Health Canada, followed by a “thorough” assessment of safety. However, Health Canada does not conduct its own testing of GMO products, which means that these large corporations are responsible for testing their own product, and submitting results to Health Canada supporting its safety. Reading the information on the HC website regarding GMOs would have you believe that there are absolutely no downsides to genetic modification. GM is almost glorified which talk about such benefits as longer lasting and better tasting fruits and vegetables, crops requiring less use of pesticides, and improved nutrient content in foods. There is a notable neglect to mention any negatives, and information regarding issues that have occured from GM being introduced into the food supply, such as unintentional cross-pollination and herbicide resistance, is absent.

Currently, 35 countries require GM foods to be labeled, and Europe holds some of the strictest GM labeling regulations. Canada and the U.S., however, do not require GMOs to be labeled. Since Health Canada considers GM foods to be safe, consumers are unable to distinguish between conventional and GM foods.

There are over 81 GM foods for sale in Canada. The types of foods that are commonly genetically modified are: eggs, canola, soybean, wheat, milk, potatoes, and corn. This means that any product which contains soy or canola as ingredients, may also contain GM components. It is said that half of North America’s soy crop is genetically engineered, and about 60% of processed foods contain some degree of genetic modification.

HC has only been following the safety of GM foods in the food supply for the past 12 years. However, adverse effects can take much, much longer to appear. In addition, effects may not be as obvious as we might hope, and may only be detectable at the cellular level, which is difficult to assess. Yet, HC claims “there is no current evidence to indicate that long term studies are needed to ensure the safety of foods produced using this technology”.

So, does the public have the right to know if their food has been altered by biotechnology, even if the government has deemed it safe? Does the government have the right to make that decision for us?

The Canadian government is taking an “innocent until proven guilty” stance on GMOs and safety. I argue that it should be the other way around. Personally, I like to err on the side of caution when it comes to what I put into my body, but how can I do that if I’m not able to distinguish which foods contain GM ingredients? Over 80% of Canadians said they want to see GM foods on food labels, but the government has failed to respond. I'm not saying GMOs are bad because (and this is the issue) not enough testing has been done to know for sure. What I am saying, is that the public has a right to know and make informed decisions about out GM food. In my opinion, if GM foods are safe, HC and GM companies should be willing to label such products, and safety tests should be required to be conducted by an independent third party.
What do you think?

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