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What’s so scary about GMO?

Blog post contributed by Matilda Miranda, freelance copywriter and content strategist.

GMO stands for “Genetically Modified Organisms,” and for many who hear those words, it automatically conjures up scary images of mutated plants and animals ready to wreak havoc on our bodies and the environment.

“There’s been a well-organized campaign of deliberate misinformation by a lot of anti-agriculture activist organizations,” says Dr. Stuart Smyth, an associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan.

According to Smyth, anti-GMO campaigns by high profile activist organizations have had a huge effect on how people view genetically modified [GM] foods and there’s data to back that up. A 2018 Dalhousie University study found that 34.7 per cent of Canadians polled believe GM foods aren’t safe to eat, but at the same time 44 per cent said that the health effects aren’t fully understood. This comes despite the fact that Health Canada puts all GM foods through a stringent safety assessment process, one that is based upon consultations carried out by the World Health Organization.

To date, Health Canada has approved over 81 GM foods for sale (including corn and soybeans), deeming them just as safe and nutritious as non-modified foods. GM foods don’t introduce unique risks and there have been no recorded cases of sicknesses or deaths resulting from their consumption thus far. According to Health Canada, many of the issues (such as the transfer of allergens and toxins) raised by foods resulting from genetic modification are equally applicable to foods produced by conventional means for the short and long-term. However, since society sometimes conflates healthy and natural, there are retailers who charge more for GMO-free products. But that doesn’t make their products natural or any healthier than those products made from GM crops.

“Any farm is completely artificial. Even with organic farms, you strip away all the native vegetation,” says Pamela Ronald, a prominent plant geneticist and distinguished professor at the University of California. “Organic farmers also have to use pesticides. Some of those can be especially harmful, even if they’re dug up from the earth.”

Farmer Terry Daynard grows genetically-engineered corn and soybeans in the Guelph, Ontario-area. He believes that the hype built around “non-GMO” foods by retailers and organizations with a vested interest in non-GMO products has some people picturing the idealistic farms of yesteryear which simply don’t exist anymore.

“[People] envision that all of their food should come from a farm like their grandfather,” Daynard said. “They don’t connect the fact that if you were to grow food that [old] way, you couldn’t grow enough and it would be incredibly expensive.”

According to the census, one third of Canadians worked in agriculture back in 1921. Almost a century later, only 327,000 people were primarily employed in agriculture.

With farm numbers in steady decline since 1941, remaining farms are now bigger and run by fewer workers. Ronald agrees that Canadians and Americans are too far removed from agriculture and find it hard to imagine the challenges farmers face.

“Most of us aren’t farmers…It’s so far out that people can’t really understand how important genetic improvement is to the livelihood and health of people,” she said.

We might not realize it, but the science behind the GM plant breeding process is very similar to how plants have been traditionally bred for thousands of years. Smyth, who was granted the title of Industry-Funded Agri-Food Innovation Chair as a result of his years of research on sustainable agriculture, says you could go to your garden and pollinate a pumpkin flower with another flower, causing tens of thousands of genes to change. Plant breeders now are essentially doing the same thing, but since they use precise technologies like genetic modification, they’re only changing a handful of genes in a very controlled manner.

Take the banana Xanthomonas wilt (BXW) that hit Uganda in the early 2000s. This disease, which destroys the whole plant and contaminates the soil, has negatively impacted the lives of millions of people who rely on the country’s massive banana industry. In need of a solution, scientists went to work, discovering a trait in red peppers that resisted the wilt. They were able to introduce just that particular trait into bananas and create wilt-resistance. GM crops are currently banned in Uganda, but scientists and farmers are waiting for the country’s president to sign a biosafety bill that would allow them to commercialize these modified bananas in the coming years.

Plant breeders know specifically which trait(s) they want to improve using genetic modification, and according to Smyth, this can save crops (such as banana) from destruction, reduce the amount of time it takes to get those varieties to market and help to keep our food prices down.

So, how exactly are Canadian crops like soybean and corn genetically improved? A gene is introduced to soybeans that make the plant naturally glyphosate herbicide-resistant. That means less pesticides are needed to eliminate the weed threats, allowing farmers to use less herbicides overall. An organic insect controller, bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacteria, is inserted into corn. Bt was introduced 20 years ago after farmers like Daynard were hit with a severe European corn worm infestation that destroyed corn ears and kernel. Bt now protects the corn crop from this insect infestation.

“Breeders were trying to do something about it and finally a solution came along. That solution [Bt] still works,” Daynard said. “The technology works. It’s low cost and it uses fewer pesticides than before.”

Plants can be genetically modified with nutrients and made to withstand drought, frost and flooding. New research suggests that GM crops could allow humans to produce sustainable amounts of food despite climate change causing unpredictable weather patterns. Sadly, things aren’t so easy in the developing world, which is more susceptible to climate change and sometimes lacks availability of nutritious foods. But researchers have found at least one solution: golden rice.

It’s modified to be vitamin A-enhanced, unlike conventional rice, and could help save the lives of the 250,000 children who die from vitamin A deficiencies in the developing world each year. Unfortunately, anti-GMO activists vehemently oppose golden rice.

“The poorest people, who most need the technology, may be denied access because of the vague fears and prejudices of those who have enough to eat,” Ronald said at a 2015 TED conference. “We must focus on how we can help children grow up healthy, we must ask if farmers in rural communities can thrive and if everyone can afford the food.”

While Matilda was compensated for her work, her research, wealth of knowledge and ultimate opinions presented in this article are her own.