SCIENCE AND SILLINESS: GENETICALLY ENGINEERED FOOD IS NOTHING TO GET
Aug. 21/00 K-W Record
(from Agnet: )
How fitting that Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien got pied in PEI by
someone with the usual litany of complaints about capitalism, corporations
and, the current symbol for all things big and bad, genetically engineered
Not that the pie undoubtedly contained ingredients and flavourings derived
from genetically engineered crops such as corn, soy and canola. No, the
irony, and rather sad environmental aspect, is that the Island is once again
grappling with the issue of fishkills, at least partially resulting from
agricultural run-off when its prized potatoes are sprayed to control pests.
A report released last month by the Prince Edward Island Cancer Research
Council quite reasonably argued that people involved in the potato farming
industry want solutions that will reduce pesticide use, just like everyone
PEI Agriculture Minister Mitch Murphy responded by saying the report raised
many serious issues that deserve to be dealt with -- there's a catchy
comeback -- and that his government was moving ahead on several fronts to
reduce pesticide use, including implementation of pilot projects and
But what they won't say is that a solution -- at least a partial solution --
Potaoes genetically-engineered to contain a natural toxin from the soil
bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis have been developed, assessed, approved
and commercially available since 1996. And they work, specifically against
the Colorado potato beetle, one of the most damaging insect pests of
potatoes. Each female can lay close to 400 eggs, most of which will hatch
into voracious larvae that can destroy an entire potato crop. Growers of
so-called Bt-potatoes have observed a dramatic decrease in the need for
chemical sprays to produce spuds for processing and the fresh market. Newer
varieties also contain viral resistance, decreasing the need to spray for
aphids, the leaf-roll virus' preferred shuttle for moving from plant to
But last fall, Harrison McCain of frozen French fried fame, declared that
Bt-potatoes would not be accepted at his processing plants, citing consumer
concerns and European backlash.
Which leads back to Mr. Chretien. Another Island activist along for the pie
ride was gleefully telling CBC yesterday that, "This is for all of Jean
Chretien's social crimes but in particular because he is force feeding
genetically engineered food on the public of Canada without any testing or
labelling and he's also trying to force feed it on the rest of the world."
Leave aside the science and the silliness: will Canadian consumers knowingly
purchase genetically-engineered food? There has been much speculation but
For the past six months, my lab has been working with Jeff Wilson, a
producer who farms 300 acres of fresh fruits and vegetables near Toronto, to
establish a model farm where genetically-engineered sweet corn and potatoes
are grown side-by-side with conventional varieties.
The project was publicly announced on June 6 following public meetings and
consultation with neighbours.
Now that the crops are beginning to emerge, a walking trail has been opened
(in response to customer demand) where visitors to the farm market are able
to stroll among the crops and garner a better understanding of the
trade-offs and technologies involved in food production.
To date, customers have been extremely supportive and curious; they have
not, contrary to the European and increasingly the North American theatrical
tactic favored by pie-throwers and their ilk, expressed a desire to trample
The corn and potatoes will be ready for harvest next week-as whole foods
that can easily be labelled and segregated-and direct consumer testing for
purchasing preference will be conducted at the farm market and several other
supermarkets in Ontario.
The research is designed to help farmers decide what technologies are most
appropriate for their farming operations and to help consumers wade through
the growing mythologies regarding various methods of crop production.
For example, sweet corn is a nutritious vegetable that I can easily persuade
my children to eat. However, sweet corn is also produced using a lot of
Field trials in the U.S. have demonstrated a significant reduction in
pesticide use on genetically-engineered Bt sweet corn. And rather than just
lobbing soundbites, we are seeking to add some meaningful data to the public
conversation about genetically-engineered foods, and food production in
A web site has been created that contains numerous background documents as
well as weekly updates on the crops' development
(www.plant.uoguelph.ca/safefood). Interested members of the public,
journalists, farmers, and others are invited to visit Birkbank Farms over
the growing season to learn more about production alternatives and
integrated pest management.
Because when given the choice, perhaps and Ontarians and even Islanders
would prefer safe, affordable and nutritious food that is grown with reduced
levels of chemicals.
PANDORA'S HARVEST: A SCIENTIST AND A CHEF HAVE A FOOD FIGHT OVER WHAT WE'RE
EATING THESE DAYS bAugust 20, 2000
Pandora's Picnic Basket: The Potential and Hazards of Genetically Modified
Foods by Alan McHughen, Oxford University Press, 264 pages, $34.95
Bitter Harvest: A Chef's Perspective on the Hidden Dangers in the Foods We
Eat, and What You Can Do about It by Ann Cooper with Lisa M. Holmes,
Routledge, 278 pages, $39.95
Stuart Laidlaw writes in these book reviews that Old MacDonalds ain't what
he used to be, Neither is something most of us still take for grants --
where our food comes from. The wonders of science and the hard realities of
modern economics are transforming both the family farm and what's being
served on our dinner tables.
Long gone is the sort of animal diversity celebrated in the nursery ditty
about Old Macdonald's farm. Laidlaw says that today's farmers remain afloat
by specializing in only one or two crops or animals, Still a moo-moo, still
an oink -- oink, but rarely in chorus. Farmers are also keen adapters of
new technology, from high-tech aids to new crops.
Old Mac Donald today has a genetically modified crop, an array of
pesticides, a computer analyzing milk quality as it leaves the cow, and
tractors the size of dump trucks using onboard computers and satellite
global positioning systems to analyze sole and decide pesticide needs.
It's a world transformed, largely ignored by urbanites. Both these books
attempt to erase our citified, romantic notions of farm and food -- while
fundamental opposition to each other.
In Pandora's Picnic Basket: The Potential and Hazards of Genetically
Modified Foods, Laidlaw says that Saskatchewan research scientist Alan
McHughen attempts to ease consumer fears. In Bitter Harvest; A Chef's
Perspective on the Hidden Dangers in the Foods We eat, American cook Ann
Cooper urges us to beware. The collision produces not a balanced review of
this vast topic, but the case both for and against modern agriculture.
Take genetically modified, of GM, foods -- the sole topic of McHughen's book
and one of many farming practices Cooper tries to alarm readers about.
McHughen is enthusiastic about GM foods, saying they are safer than organic.
Cooper doesn't like them. She says organics are better for both us and the
environment, and we should all buy our food form the farmer at the end of
There's no middle ground here. These are true believers yelling at each
other from across the field, more interested in food soundbites than
responding to valid points raised by the other side. Worse, says Laidlaw,
both authors are highly selective in the evidence they present. Neither
gives much indication of having talked to anyone form the opposing camp.
While Cooper seems rather gullible in her belief that organics and buying
locally can feed the world, McHughen comes across as patronizing when
challenging people's concerns about GM foods. Cooper's life is centered
around food. She still spends hours scouring markets for the food she wants
and hiring others to do the same, and she seriously expects others to put
that much effort into something many of us regard as fuel. The long-time
chef at Vermont's Putney Inn who now runs a New York cooking school, she
complains that we don't spend enough time )or money) on what we eat.
McHughen just wishes we would all be quiet and eat our GM vegetables.
Laidlaw says that McHughen is at his best when he sticks to what her knows
-- plant biology. He is a plant breeder at the University of Saskatchewan
who had developed GM strains of linseed. When it comes to genetic
modification, he knows his stuff. His passages on how GM plants are bred
and how the technology evolved are the best I've read. Based on lessons he
prepared for his daughter's elementary school class, they are simple without
being condescending. The book is worth having for this reason alone,
especially if you a have a keen interest in the issue. Laidlaw says he
certainly intends to keep it handy.
But McHughen goes off the rails when he veers way from that strength. He
acknowledges his strong suit is science, nor food policy or consumer needs,
and it shows. He spends most of the book arguing against the more
rigorous testing of
genetically modified foods to placate consumer concerns -- making the
astonishing statement for a scientist that such tests are not needed because
they "will tell us nothing we don't already know". He repeats the food
industry argument that labeling foods for GM content is misleading because a
simple label cannot provide enough information. Ignorance is a virtue, it
When McHughen argues, as do many in the biotech industry, that we should
only label for differences in the final product but not the process for how
they were made, he misses the point. Consumers are becoming increasingly
concerned about how their food is produced, from dolphins in tuna nets to
bacteria genes in corn.
We are entering an era in which industry has the power to change the genetic
makeup of the living things around us. So far, we can make only minor
changes involving only one or two genes at a time. Soon we will be dealing
with much more substantial changes, enabling us to rapidly and radically
alter plants and animals to serve our needs -- which also opens the door to
technologies that could one day be used on humans.
It seems only prudent that society address the legal, moral, health,
environmental and economic consequences of doing so -- now. The scientific,
regulatory and business communities may have been chewing on these
contentious issues for some 20 years, but the broad public hasn't.
Cooper champions the consumer end of the food industry in her book,
basically a series of vignettes about problems associated with today's
large-scale farming. Some are now familiar stories, such as manure problems
at pig farms, while others illustrate concerns about GM foods. Cooper gives
compelling evidence that plant breeding's emphasis on making produce more
transportable has resulting in less nutritious veggies. Laidlaw says that
broccoli, for instance, has lost more than half its calcium and almost 40
per cent of its Vitamin A. Keep in mind this idea of breeding against
spoilage has been going on for decades now.
We've paid a high price in terms of taste and nutritional quality for the
luxury of buying almost any fruit or vegetable on demand. Cooper also
points out how imported farm produce is often grown with pesticides long
banned in North America.
Cooper seems to believe we should all shop like chefs do -- buying as much
produce as possible form local farmers in season -- and return to such
age-old practices as making preserves and saving root vegetables for the
winter. Buying locally, says Laidlaw, is always a good idea, if only to
maximize freshness and help to the local economy. But sweat off imported
vegetables in the off-season? We're used to lettuce in March.
Bitter Harvest is full of inspirational stories of farmers, shoppers and
restaurants doing the kinds of things she urges all of us to do. But
nowhere does Cooper attempt to fit her ideals to the economic reality of
farming today. Sure, organic farming can grow produce without pesticides.
How should that be squared with the higher yields of the majority,
chemical-dependent operations? Cooper doesn't go there.