The Real Story behind Genetically Modified Foods

The Real Story behind Genetically Modified Foods

by Sarah Jackson

What is in the food that we eat? Where does it come from? Why did over two million people worldwide take to the streets in May of this year to march against Monsanto? These are just a few of the questions people around the globe seem to be asking themselves and one another.

It is not only activists who are asking these questions either; these persistent concerns have reverberated around the world, impacting everyone, often without them even knowing, from small-scale farmers, to government officials. According to the Global Research website, Hungarian officials announced last May that they had burned over 1000 acres of maize after discovering that the crops had come into contact with genetically modified (GM) seeds. In 2012, the Peruvian Times reported a ten-year ban on GM foods went into effect in Peru, the first of its kind in South America.

So what are GM foods? Why are so many people so concerned about them? According to Serena Black, a Master’s student in the Natural Resources and Environmental Science program at UNBC, we use GMOs because they have certain advantages, such as pesticide resistance, and that allows us to have the large-scale mono-crop agriculture you see in most farm photos. Serena, who is well-known for her role as the Market Manager of the University Farmer’s Market (UFM), is doing a cultivar study on barley for her master’s project, which involves looking at the water-resistance of hybrid and heritage plants.

Serena took the time to define a few key terms that can easily be confused in the literature and media surrounding our current food systems. “GMO stands for genetically modified organism, meaning you input a segment of DNA into the crops; DNA that wasn’t there before, and produces various traits in the plant such as pesticide resistance.”

However, the plants she is looking at in her study are not GM plants; they are in a different category altogether. “Hybrid plants, at least modern hybrids, take about eight years to select for grain. This is done by choosing different characteristics that you’re breeding forth, choosing parent plants with characteristics that you want,” Serena explained. In other words, hybrid plants are bred the way people have been breeding animals for years, choosing for certain traits, such as height, colour, yield, or behavioural attributes.

She adds that, “people have been developing hybrids for years to increase yields.” They do this for different reasons, including to increase disease resistance and quality. Heritage grains have not gone through that process but they have been selected throughout history by choosing the healthiest looking seeds by hand.” So if GM foods enable us to grow a lot of food without using pesticides, what is the problem? According to Serena, who has spent a lot of time with local farmers through her work at the UFM, people have different issues with GM foods. She says that the people she has spoken to “are concerned about health implications, such as how much of the pesticide remains on the crops after they are grown.” As well, she says that people have concerns about the costs of buying GM seeds, the legal aspect of a company owning DNA, and the fact that “we haven’t used them long enough to understand any negative health implications.”

“Almost all corn is genetically modified, and we have been consuming it for a long time without anyone knowing whether they should be concerned,” she said, adding that there are a lot of different perspectives on the issue. In the local Omineca region, which includes Prince George, people see “…canola as the main GM issue. Everyone grows a lot of hybrids; not GMOs. But people are wondering whether the canola seeds will impact other crops. Meanwhile, the information is really unclear.”

Dr. Art Fredeen, a professor of Ecosystem Science and Management on campus, took the time to outline his understanding of GM foods. He says that one main problem he sees with growing GM foods is that it disrupts agricultural patterns that, in some cases, have remained unchanged for thousands of years. Monsanto is the number one GM-producing corporation, and their refusal to allow farmers to retain any of their seed for the next season builds dependence on the corporation and changes the culture of agriculture.

Dr. Fredeen explains that GMO companies have justified their GMOs to feed an ever growing human population. However, GM crops are expensive, and clearly not feeding those who need it most.  With respect to plant, pest, and weed control, many studies now suggest that herbicide resistant GMOs, for example, are allowing for improvements in weed control initially, but only until pests or plant weeds evolve and become resistant to the pesticides or toxins inserted by the manufacturers.

As a specialist in plant physiology and ecosystem processes, Dr. Fredeen argues “we need to accommodate nature in our lives. Our ecosystems provide us with so many services. There are other ways to deal with pests.” He expresses concern that removing biodiversity from natural systems through the use of products such as GMOs is particularly dangerous in the face of the challenges humanity will be facing as a result of climate change. Specifically, he questions whether the genetic homogeneity of GM crops will ultimately cripple food production in a quickly changing environment.

Despite the concerns expressed by Canadians in diverse sectors of society, our government has refused to label GM foods. According to the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, this refusal occurs in spite of “10 years of polling that show over 80% of Canadians want these labels,” and the fact that “at least 40 countries around the world have labeling laws including [the] Europe[an Union], China and Russia.”

According to the Health Canada website, “Currently in Canada, labelling is mandatory if there is a health or safety issue with a food, which might be mitigated through labelling,” however, “as consumers in a free country we should have a right to know what foods have GM products,” argues Dr. Fredeen, adding that, in Canada, “Organic food usually is not GM.”

Dr. Scott Green, Associate Professor and ecologist at UNBC, finds it useful to examine the issue from a historical perspective. He says that how and what we eat has changed dramatically over the last fifty years. “When I was a kid, we ate much more seasonally.  And a lot of our food came from local farmers.” According to Dr. Green it is important to understand that things have changed really fast “based on an economic model” that has led us to standardize almost everything.

“Food is very cross-cutting in society. It is a social thing,” explains Dr. Green, whose work focuses on communities and on “understanding how people are connected to other people and to their environments.” He says that in many indigenous communities, the way people view food reflects a deep connection and dependence on each other and on their environments. In contrast, in a globalized, contemporary society, he sees disturbing trends in human expressions of interconnection.

For those of us who live in “dominant western societies, food is just another commodity.” He expresses deep concern with the way our society seems to centre on the consumption of goods and the idea of progress. “Right now, we’re facing a crisis of identity,” which he believes is tied to this focus on economic growth, above all else.

Dr. Green argues that in order for us to have a sense of meaning and identity as individuals, we need to understand where we come from. “We have little sense of history and tradition – those things that define who we are as Canadians, Americans, or whoever.” In his eyes, the western notion of progress at all costs, which is so inherent in modern concepts of growth and consumption of GM foods, is deeply tied to this disconnection between us and the foods that we eat. It is this same disconnection that he believes leads to alarmingly high levels of loneliness, depression, and addiction in our society.

Dr. Green believes that it would be a powerful step towards positive change if we considered “how what we eat reflects where we live.” Or in many cases how it does not. He says that in his work with communities, with farmers, with students and with the UFM, he has found that, for many people, interest in local food is often about “the chance to look the farmer in the eye; to know the person producing their food.” It is about relationships. “The longing for connection is embedded in our own bones. It’s innate; it’s part of who we are as humans.

Perhaps it is this same innate longing for connection and understanding that has caused people all over the world to take to the streets, asking; what are we eating? Why are we eating this? How is it affecting our lives? And is this the way we want things to be?

Perhaps it is these same questions that drive people in our own community, and many others, to seek out alternate ways of getting food, whether it is in back gardens, community plots, at community markets or from good food boxes.

The undeniable truth is this; you are not just buying bananas when you shop at the supermarket, you are choosing a way of life, and casting a vote for food and labour standards that reverberates all around the world.

For Dr. Green, he sees great hope for future change. However, his hope does not reside in the actions of governments or corporations, but from the things people living in communities are doing, the ways in which they are achieving sustainability in different contexts, and through understanding their relationships with each other and the relationships they have with their environments. “In the end, sustainability is about relationships. That’s how we’re made.”