Wading through the genetically modified foods debate

MP Frank Valeriote recently held a public discussion on genetically modified organisms here.

The panel represented a wide diversity of opinion with many valid points raised by knowledgeable presenters. The discussion highlighted the potential benefits and threats represented by genetically modified (GM) crops.

 For those who support GM crops, the goal is to improve crop productivity in a sustainable way. Genetic modification is not going to be a panacea for dealing with food supply issues, but there are good results out there. For example, GM cotton in Australia resulted in a 2/3 reduction in pesticide use, which meant better water quality for that region.

Representing the other side, Jodi Koberinski, of the Organic Council of Ontario, explained the organic approach to growing food. Because organic does not use inorganic chemicals for pest and weed control, any comparison with GM crops shows that organic producers use fewer pesticides. Furthermore, she asserted that the emphasis that organic producers put on soil quality over time produces comparable crops yields.

Another key element was the need for effective labeling so consumers really do have a choice. One of the failings of the pro-GM side is that while they have sold most farmers on the benefits of GM crops, they have failed to communicate effectively with consumers. The view of Croplife Canada’s Lorne Hepworth was that 18 billion meals have been safely served in North America since GM foods were introduced. But it seems that most consumers don’t know that.

Alison Blay Palmer looked at the issue from the perspective of its impact on market access. She argued that the potential downside from loss of market access is a serious issue and not worth the risk to farmers.

Manish Raizada and Rene Van Acker described the science involved in developing GMOs and the potential threats from the perspectives of a molecular biologist and an ecologist. For the molecular biologist, species don’t really matter as the packet of information in the DNA looks the same in different species. For the ecologist, species do matter, and changes in species can disrupt the existing ecosystem with unknown consequences.

The GM crop debate is a complex one. There are potential gains to be made from the use of GM crops, but it isn’t going to be a panacea for hunger. At the same time there is the need for personal choice for consumers, consideration of market impacts, and the potential for unintended harm to ecosystems that cannot easily be undone.

Nathan Stevens is the research and policy advisor for the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario.