Biotechnology In Food Essay, Research Paper
REG MITCHELL’s defence of “Frankenfoods” — genetically engineered (GE)farm products — in his Oct. 9 article “So-called Frankenfoods have no more pathogens than are found in nature” is a repetition of the mantra we hear daily from the global corporations that dominate agricultural biotechnology.
His principal point seems to be that since life abounds with risks of various kinds (cancer-inducing elements in the environment, the risk of being hit by a truck) we shouldn’t be concerned about the possibility of adding another one to the list.
He suggests biotechnology is an unstoppable reality, with half of U.S. soybeans planted this year to GE seeds, as well as half of Canada’s canola crop. He could have added the vast acreages of genetically modified (GM) cotton, corn and potatoes growing in North America this year. Such crops are expected to triple in use worldwide in the next few years, he writes.
The projections quoted by Prof. Mitchell may not materialize. The European Union will not accept GM products, and this is causing horrendous marketing problems for North American farmers.
It is becoming obvious we cannot force Europeans to take such products, even though Canada and the U.S. are using the World Trade Organization (WTO) in an effort to do so. Most large European and British supermarket chains have removed GE products from their shelves, and the largest European food processors (Nestle and Unilever) will no longer use GM products.
All this is being reflected in the market — non-GM foods are now selling at a higher price than genetically altered crops. And there is a scramble by farmers to find non-GM seed for planting next year — there may not be enough to meet the rising demand.
Mitchell tells us GM crops will reduce the use of herbicides and insecticides. In fact, the whole point of GM soya and canola is to allow any amount of Monsanto’s weed killer “Roundup” to be sprayed on them without harming the crop.
Biotech corporations have engineered the naturally occurring Bt insecticide into every cell of crops of potatoes, corn and cotton, even though they know this guarantees Bt will be useless in a very few years as insects resistant to it rapidly multiply. Organic growers will have lost the only insecticide they are allowed to use.
And recent research has shown pollen drifting from a corn crop into which Bt has been engineered will kill non-target species such as the Monarch butterfly. “Genetic drift” or “genetic pollution” into non-GM crops or weedy relatives is turning out to be much more prevalent and its implications more serious than biotech researchers predicted.
Mitchell says genetic engineering can be expected to help feed a hungry world. This routine claim of the biotechnology industry is deeply resented in developing nations, where it’s well-known the real causes of hunger are poverty and inequitable food distribution. In any case, most GE crops produce less food than do normal seeds — about seven per cent lower in the case of the 1998 U.S. soybean crop. In a particularly noble contribution to the relief of world hunger, the biotech industry plans to offer farmers seeds that die after producing one crop, forcing them to return to the company for new, expensive seed each year.
“To satisfy government regulation, such crops are rigorously tested to determine risk,” writes Mitchell. Surely he knows that, in fact, no research has been done anywhere on the effect of GE foods on humans.
The British Medical Association has warned the U.K. government not enough is known about these foods to allow them on the market. In Canada, however, we have adopted the doctrine of “substantial equivalence” — if it looks like a potato it is a potato, and no further queries are necessary.
Prof. Mitchell advises us to seek out the Health Canada Web site in order to be assured of the safety of “novel foods,” as genetically altered products are called.
That’s a good suggestion — at the site, you will find that a corporation wishing to market a “novel food” need not seek approval from Health Canada. It has merely to notify the department of its intentions 45 days before selling the product, along with data assuring its safety. Health Canada can ask for more information if it wishes. And that’s it — there is no testing of such foods in
If an independent scientist (Prof. Mitchell, for example) wished to check that data, he would have to use the freedom of information process to get it, and even then it would only be released if the corporation in question agreed.
In the scientific process, researchers normally publish their results so colleagues around the world can verify or disprove their results, or use them as a springboard from which to press the work further.
In biotech research, the watchword is secrecy. You don’t publish without corporate permission, and you certainly don’t publish anything that might reflect unfavourably on the product the company is pushing. There are studies showing corporate funding is a very effective way of ensuring research will be favourable to the sponsoring company’s products.
Finally, there is the impact of genetic engineering on modern farming. The products of GE require high-input, high-capital operations, and are designed to facilitate large-scale, continuous-cropping monocultures. This is the antithesis of sustainable agriculture in which crop rotations, maintenance of soil
structure and fertility, and natural pest-control methods are valued.
Biotechnology in agriculture is, of course, the opposite of organic agriculture, and public concerns about it will speed the already phenomenal increase in demand for organic produce.