In consideration of GMOs

Paul Martiquet/Health Columnist / Staff writer
January 29, 2014 01:00 AM

Say the word 'GMO' in almost any group and you will instantly be regaled with tales of disaster, 'frankenfood' and the evils of multinational food companies.

Is any of this reaction based on fact? Science?

In fact, most people are not even sure what genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are, yet they debate vehemently that they represent a horrible turn for humanity and the earth. Just type the term into any search engine and almost everything you see is negative. Unfortunately, many people have formed their opinions based on hearsay and their 'gut feeling' that it must be bad. Most of these opinions have been shaped by a combination of several non-scientific forces, including a mistrust of big corporations, fear of unchecked technology and gut-level queasiness.

The failure of this anti-GMO bias is the limiting effect it has on our ability to grow healthful food most efficiently at a time when a growing population make that goal all the more urgent.

Let's start with a definition. Wikipedia tells us that a "genetically modified organism is an organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques." The technical, legal term is 'living modified organism' reflecting that these are living things whose DNA has been altered, often with the addition of a gene from a distant species, to produce a desired trait.

Rebuffing many of the cherished assumptions held by anti-GM folks should be easy: just use the facts. For example, GMOs use less insecticides and chemicals. Another belief is that GM only benefits big companies, but truth is that farmers needing fewer inputs also accrue the benefits.

At one time 'Terminator Technology' was supposed to have been created to make plants sterile so they could not produce useable seeds. It turns out that hybrid seeds did that long ago; Terminator never happened.

GM is believed to be dangerous. In fact, it is safer and more precise than conventional breeding using mutagenesis, for example. But GM just moves a couple of genes, whereas conventional breeding mucks about with the entire genome in a trial and error way.

Without complete information, it's hard to be open-minded and, unfortunately, that is where most opinion is derived. Indeed, there is an established global consensus which holds that existing genetically engineered crops are no riskier than others, and have provided some tangible benefits.

Take the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the premier scientific body in the U.S., which has repeatedly found genetically modified food safe, and that genetically engineered crops are kinder to the environment than non-genetically engineered crops. Or the American Medical Association which consistently found genetically modified foods as safe to eat as any other food.

The biggest ever survey of scientific information on GMO was carried out by a group of Italian scientists in 2013. They looked at 1,783 published research papers, reviews, and reports on GMOs and found no evidence of harm.

Looking at the GMO situation without prejudice suggests that underlying the debate is the fallacy of natural is good and artificial is bad. But this is a fallacy because there are plenty of entirely natural poisons. For the organic movement, this naturalistic fallacy is elevated into a central guiding principle. But consider this: over the past 15 years, some three trillion meals containing GM ingredients have been consumed without a single substantiated case of harm. Meanwhile, dozens of people have died after eating organic crops contaminated with E. coli.

Editor's note: Dr. Paul Martiquet is the medical health officer for rural Vancouver Coastal Health including Powell River, the Sunshine Coast, Sea-to-Sky, Bella Bella and Bella Coola.


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