How safe is the food you eat? Of course, our food provides nourishment and allows most of us to live reasonably healthy lives, but are we aware of the nasty side effects this same food may cause? For the purposes of this column, I'm not going to consider the pesticide residue on the fruits and vegetables we eat. Ignore the large amounts of chemical preservatives used in meats and processed foods. I will not cover artificial sweeteners, flavours, or colours, nor fat replacement chemicals, or the unknown effects these unnatural substances have on our bodies. I won't touch on unhealthy effects of hydrogenated oils found in margarine, chips, crackers, and many other foods. I won't discuss the large amounts of hormones and antibiotics which are fed to today's livestock, which we unwittingly expose ourselves when we consume the meat found in our favourite grocery store. I'm also not considering the fact that fruits and vegetables found in your supermarket these days have only one quarter the content of certain trace vitamins and minerals (which our bodies need) that they did 40 years ago. No, I definitely will not discuss any of these things, even though many of them are thought to cause various cancers, allergies, auto-immune reactions, and other nasty effects, because I am here today to discuss another potential danger: genetically modified foods.
What do the words "genetically modified foods" mean? They do not refer to the process of artificial selection or breeding, which occurs in farming and ranching. Although these breeding programs do pose potential environmental dangers, one can be quite sure that the plants and animals are safe to eat because the processes used to create them are completely natural, and occur gradually over generations. Genetic modification of foods refers to the use of genetic engineering techniques to do various extremely unnatural things to plants and animals. The end result of these techniques is the insertion of a gene (or genes) from one organism into another producing some desired effect. For example, tomatoes with a long shelf life-which we have all been eating for many years-contain genetic material from a deep sea fish! Estimates vary on the amount of food in our diets which has been genetically modified, but it is safe to say over half of the food found on your grocery shelves are genetically modified or contain ingredients which are genetically modified.
Essentially identical genes are found in each cell of an organism, and each has the job of producing a different protein. Through the complicated biochemical reactions occurring in that organism, those proteins affect the traits of that organism. One or more traits cannot be perfectly attributed to one or more genes, because of the complicated relationships occurring between the proteins they create. Therefore, regardless of how carefully gene modification is performed, there is a potential for unforeseen and undesirable consequences in that organism which can effect us when we ingest it. Those effects may be so long-term, it might be lifetimes or generations before we are aware of any problems. If you think large companies always do enough research and are always right about their products safety, then you are wrong. We once thought CFCs were safe, but now know they gobble holes in the ozone layer. We once thought Thalidomide was safe, but now know it causes birth defects. Scientists once described automobiles as essentially "pollution free," but we obviously know better now.
Most arguments for or against genetic modification of foods are backed up by current scientific knowledge; however, one has to agree human knowledge is very limited. Given this, it is a wise course to proceed more slowly and err on the side of caution rather than folly. I agree there is a reasonable chance that, if biotechnology companies are very careful the risks to human health may not be significant. But, that is a decision an individual citizen should have the right to make for themselves. Toward that end, genetically modified foods must be labelled as they are in Europe. Currently, North American biotechnology companies have a strong lobby to prevent exactly this. If you would like legislation requiring the labelling of GMF's, write your Member of Parliament. You can look up your riding and contact information at: <<http://canada.gc.ca/directories/mp_direct_e.html>>.
My researching this topic has caused me to wonder one more thing: when and where is the next organic foods farmer's market? I think I might go.
[Look for this column again in one month when it will discuss the environmental dangers of genetic modifications of organisms in general.]