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What one plant agriculture expert wants you to know about GMOs

A recent study found that those who know the least about genetic modification had the most to say about it, so we turned to a researcher to get us up to speed.

By Amy van den Berg

Genetically modified (GM) food is a controversial subject, but it has the power to transform the way our world sustains itself. First developed in the 1970s, genetic engineering has been used to produce vaccines, batteries, late-ripening fruit, pesticides, and infection-resistant crops. The vast majority of scientists agree that genetic modification technology is not dangerous to human health, yet doubt and mistrust continues to surround modified food.

A new study published on Monday by the scientific journal Nature Human Behaviour found that those who are the most averse to genetically modified foods actually know the least about them, but believe they know the most. The researchers asked around 2,000 European and American adults what they thought about GM foods and tested their knowledge to see how much they actually knew about genetic science. They found that those with the strongest opposition to GM foods were in the most need of education, yet were the least likely to be open to learning about the subject.

I asked Rene Van Acker, dean of the Ontario Agricultural College at the University of Guelph and a plant agriculture professor, to answer some common questions about GM foods and address the stigmas around this technology.

Q: Can you give me a basic explanation of GMOs?

A: GMOs are organisms that were genetically modified or genetically engineered. This uses specific types of technologies that transfer typically-foreign DNA to a species to achieve a particular trait that the scientist is looking for. Some examples of those traits are herbicide tolerance or insect resistance. In addition, genetic engineering allows us to achieve the transfer of DNA that is not possible naturally, so it allows us to source DNA from anywhere, really. That is why the technology is so interesting and exciting, because plant breeders are not limited to plants that are sexually compatible.

Q: Is it usually used to produce food?

A: Genetic engineering is a technology that can be used on anything and everything to achieve certain ends, and that could include trees, for example. But most commonly, it has been applied to agriculture for food crops. It is a particular technology but it falls under a broader umbrella of technologies called biotechnologies, which is used in many ways in agriculture, without technically using the term "genetic modification." So if the big issue is the use of science and technology to produce food, then your choices are going to be pretty limited in the grocery store.

Q: How much of our food is genetically modified?

A: I would say the majority of processed foods contains some ingredient from a GM crop. The minority of our fresh fruits and vegetables are GM, by far the minority. 

Q: Humans have been selectively breeding for certain plant and animal traits for hundreds of years, how is this technology any different?

A: The difference when we’re talking about genetic modification is that it completely opens the spectrum of potential sources of DNA for the traits we are willing to achieve. Let’s say I’m a wheat breeder. If I’m not using genetic engineering, I’m limited to sourcing genetic material from other wheat varieties, or from closely related wheat species where I can cross-pollinate successfully. With genetic engineering, I can source genes from fish, fireflies, etc. I can look anywhere and that completely changes things. Whether I should do all those things or not are completely different questions.

Q: So now the big question: is it safe to do that?

A: The short answer is maybe. What I mean by that is yes, this biotechnology could be used to create something that is not safe. And that’s why you have authorities and regulatory agencies to make sure that when somebody has genetically engineered something and wants to introduce it to the market, they can’t just do that. It has to go through the scrutiny of competent authorities in that jurisdiction to make sure that it’s safe.

Q: When you say safety, are we talking about for consumption, or for the environment?

A: It has to pass two hurdles: safe for human consumption and animal consumption, and safe for the environment.

Q: In your personal opinion, are we safe to consume GM foods?

A: I think it’s very safe. I base that on trusting the scrutiny of competent authorities around the world. That includes European authorities, Canadian, U.S., and other countries around the world. I can trust that GM foods are safe, even if I don’t trust companies like Monsanto. Because it’s not Monsanto who is determining whether this should be on the market or not, it’s the competent authorities.

Q: Speaking of Monsanto, are all GMOs owned by corporations?

A: Most, if not all examples on the market right now have been introduced by the private sector. There’s a lot of research that has gone on in the public sector, and there are many partnerships, but at the end of the day, it is the private sector that commercializes these things and puts them on the market.

"If the issue is the use of science and technology to produce your food, then your choices are going to be pretty limited in the grocery store."

Q: Can we survive without GM foods as a planet?

A: If we had to, yes. I’m of the opinion that it’s important to keep many options as open as possible. There’s always going to be a new disease, new pest pressures, drought, all sorts of environmental challenges in terms of agriculture. So there’s always a need for increasingly resilient or differently resilient cultivars, and it’s good to have as many tools as possible to help us to sustain that production. I see it from that perspective. The truth is it’s not a bad strategy to keep technology options available. 

Q: Is there a possibility that these crops can benefit our food systems as we face climate change?

A: Absolutely. But what we need to do is much more complicated than just GM crops. We’re not going to survive or create sustainable agriculture in the face of climate change with only GM technology. It’s going to take much more than that. It’s going to take ecological practices, crop rotations, diversity, integration and farming systems. Maybe GM technology can help us do more of that. But it’s not the only thing we need, that’s for sure.

Q: And the opposite question: can GM technology destroy the world?

A: If we had no capable authorities, yes. People can create stuff that is stupid and shouldn’t happen, and that’s why we have such wise scrutiny of these things. But the other thing is, we have to build resilient systems, and GM crops are just tools or components of those systems. GM crops are useful, and can be part of a sustainability approach. It’s like when they say “Rice Krispies are part of a healthy breakfast." Rice Krispies are not a healthy breakfast, they are part of a healthy breakfast.

Q: Is there anything that we still don’t know?

A: Oh, there’s lots of things we don’t know! (laughs) I think something else that’s good about GM technology is it’s helped us ask a lot more questions about the nature of genes. The old dogma in genetics was “one gene, one gene product.” The new dogma in genetics is, what is a gene? (laughs) There’s a lot of room for discovery in terms of how DNA works.

Q: It seems a lot of skepticism around GM food comes down to conspiracy theories and a general mistrust in the research and science.

A: Yes, absolutely. But it’s OK to question it, as long as there's a full understanding of how the system works and who is involved. It’s not like a corporation wakes up one day and says “Hey, let’s throw this on the market.” It doesn’t work that way.

I hope that people will start to recognize that there are authorities that operate our regulatory agencies and they do important work. I think people forget what Health Canada does and what the Canadian Food Inspection Agency does, what Environment Canada does, in ensuring that products that are on the market, like GM crops, are safe. People will trust a blogger on the internet while they don’t even know the cadre of scientists in Health Canada who are vetting whether these things are safe for human consumption.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.


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