In Canada, we live in a society where we can walk into any grocery store and find an immense variety of safe, high-quality produce grown in different continents available for our consumption. We also live in a society that relies heavily on the internet for sources of information, which is plagued with a myriad of myths and misconceptions about the food we eat – especially about GMOs, also known as genetically modified organisms.
Like smart phones and wireless communication, genetically modified food is the result of recent innovation and continuous technological advancement. The term GMO is misleading, since every fruit, grain and vegetable we eat today has been genetically modified to a certain extent and bear little resemblance to the crops we started cultivating ten thousand years ago. In other words, no commercial crop today would be found in nature if it wasn’t for human intervention. For example: seedless watermelons and the ruby red grapefruit aren’t found in the wild; Almonds used to be loaded with lethal doses of cyanide; Bananas used to be chock-full of seeds; and corn used to be a tiny inedible grass with its kernels encased in hard shells. Manipulating genes to create new varieties of plants isn’t new; plant breeders and scientists have just gotten really good at it.
What people know as GMOs today refer to genetically engineered organisms or transgenic organisms – where genes from one species (e.g. bacteria) are extracted and fused into the genome of different species (e.g. plant) for the purpose of improving the crop.These are plants that are products of a sophisticated breeding method, simply a precise extension of conventional breeding methods (e.g selective breeding, hybridization etc). So instead of relying on only compatible species (such as crossing citrus fruits to make new varieties), scientists can now transcend the species barrier and incorporate useful genes (traits) into plants from other kingdoms (such as bacteria.) These genes can provide the plants with new traits to help them defend themselves from specific insects, viruses, bacteria and fungi, allowing farmers to use less resources and pesticides; the ability to thrive in harsh climate, such as drought, flood, and poor soil, increasing yields; to enhance the nutritional profile of the food and increase the shelf life. We’ve only touched the surface of the possibilities biotechnology can offer. In summary, scientists are creating “super”, sustainable plants to feed the growing population in the face of climate change.
GMOs aren’t lurking in every food you buy if it’s not labelled, despite what the “Non GMO project” wants you to believe. It is well known which crops are considered GMOs, and Health Canada tightly regulates these products and emerging plants with novel traits. There are only a few GMO crops on the market in North America today: corn (field and sweet), soybeans, canola, sugar beets, alfalfa, cotton, rainbow papaya, the non-browning Arctic apple, and the low-acrylamide Innate potato. Four of these (corn, cotton, canola, and soy) are grown in Canada, but most of them are exported to other countries. Most GM foods aren’t found in your produce section – over 90% are considered to be commodity crops. They are used to make the ingredients in processed foods, fodder for animals, and biodiesel, to name a few.
The next generation of GMOs are being developed or currently trying to gain market approval for human benefit: Golden rice, which is developed to contain high amounts of beta-carotene (normally not present in rice) for the purpose of enriching the diets of children and adults in developing countries that are dying due to vitamin À deficiency. When it’s finally approved, seeds will be distributed for free to farmers under a humanitarian licence; Cassava, a staple crop in Africa, has been bred to resist two damaging viruses and to deliver increased amounts of iron, protein, beta-carotene and zinc; Genetically engineering technology is being considered to save oranges from “citrus greening” disease that is currently wiping out the trees in Florida; Hypoallergenic peanuts, gluten-free wheat, edible vaccines, anthocyanin-rich tomatoes, fresh fruits and vegetables with improved shelf life…the possibilities are endless with this technology.
The current scientific consensus regarding GMOs remains unchanged: they are safe and do not pose a health risk to humans. Every major scientific body in Canada and around the world has reviewed independent research related to GM crops and food and has concluded they are as safe as food and crops developed from other methods in use today. GM crops and foods have been in use in Canada for 30 years with no evidence, despite allegations that they cause any harm.
As with any new technology, it can have unintended consequences and it can be controlled, or monopolized… but when considering the number of hungry people on the planet, and the climate crisis, we have to look at the balance of benefits versus risks. We should explore every possible way to increase crop yield, decrease the use of pesticides, energy and water needed to produce a crop, and ways to make plants more resilient to climate and disease – and genetic engineering technology can help get there.