Saturday, January 31, 2009

Genetically Modified Foods
and why we should buy organic

In North America, the origin of much of the food we consume is unknown to to us. Basic questions remain a mystery such as what is in our food? Where and how is the food we eat grown, raised and produced? And in the search for answers, isn't long before genetically modified foods and organics come into the picture.

Many people are eating more local, fresh and whole foods. Many of us are eating less meat and more vegetables, fish, beans and tofu. And in spite of this, many of us are still, unknowingly, consuming genetically modified foods.

The gritty details

Genetically engineered or modified organisms (GMOs) are created by taking genes from plants, animals or micro-organisms such as bacteria and viruses and inserting them into other, often unrelated species. This is done to help crops produce higher yields, grow faster, resist specific herbicides or pesticides and better survive environmental elements and climate changes.

GMOs were first approved in Canada in 1995 and we have since become the world’s third largest producer, after the United States and Argentina. And, although biotech companies claim that genetically modified foods are safe, many scientists, consumer organizations and concerned citizens are very weary. By genetically modifying our food, we are creating new organisms that would never naturally develop and we're creating unpredictable risks.

The most common modified foods are derived from plants: soy, corn, canola and cotton. Together, these four crops make up nearly 100 per cent of all genetically modified foods in North America.

On the one hand (the good)
Biotechnology and GMOs have shown the potential to increase crop yields, and withstand drought, pesticides and insects. New advances are also providing plants that are resistant to insects, thus eliminating the need for pesticides.

Those who promote GMOs claim that this technology is just an extension of traditional plant breeding techniques. They note that these new products are extensively researched, regulated and tested. Finally, they state that increasing food production in this way is the only hope we have to feed a growing world population.

And the other hand (the bad)
Many major controversies surround genetically engineered crops and foods. Critics of GMOs claim that scientists are dabbling in genetic modification without knowing the full impact this might have on human health and the environment.

The critics focus on the long-term health effects for anyone eating GMOs, environmental safety, the right for labeling and consumer choice, intellectual property rights, ethics, food security, poverty reduction, environmental conservation, and potential disruption or even possible destruction of the food chain. People criticial of genetic engineering believe genetic engineering will be a health or ecological disaster.

Some environmental risks include a loss of biodiversity, the contamination of crops, and the development of super weeds and super pests that then leads to an increased use of pesticides. While there are health risks to humans, animals and plants including developing antibiotic resistance and allergic reactions, negative nutritional changes to the crops, and the creation of toxins.

"The infrastructure on which our present food system is based is unsustainable at every level, from seed to table."
Herb Barbolet, food policy researcher, Simon Fraser University

A growing discussion

Right now, there is no mandatory labelling of genetically modified foods in Canada. The Consumers' Association of Canada supports voluntary labelling, backing the stance of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. And while we're not in the minority, we are in the dark about the food we eat. Overall, about 40 countries have labelling laws including of the European Union nations, Japan, China, Russia, Australia and New Zealand. Really. Russia and China. As a result, food manufacturers in all those countries choose to use non-genetically engineered ingredients.

During 2008, the federal government debated Private Member's Bill C-157 calling on the labelling of genetically modified foods. This bill was voted down and the rationale is that we wouldn't understand the labels and that the labels would be misleading or inaccurate.

But, voting down the bill won't be the last we hear of this debate. According to a 1999 Environics poll, 80 per cent of Canadians want genetically modified foods to be labelled. Greenpeace Canada says that number is closer to 95 per cent. The Walrus magazine recently published the article Do you know what you're eating? which outlines this debate further.

Here in British Columbia, the Society for a G.E. free B.C. is hard at work with communities to help they change agricultural practices and to stop the genetic engineering of plants and trees. In 2004, the Regional District of Powell River became the first GE free zone in Canada, followed by Saltspring Island in 2005 and Nelson in 2008.

Why buy organic?

Certified organic guarantees specific standards for growing, feeding, storing, processing, packaging and shipping. Vegetables can't be grown with chemical pesticides or fertilizers, can't be fertilized with sewage sludge and can't be genetically modified. Organic animals have to be fed organic feed, can't be treated with antibiotics or hormones and must be allowed access to the outdoors.

The real point of organics is better production methods so fewer chemicals will be polluting the soil, water and our bodies.

Tips for avoiding genetically modified foods

1. Buy organic
The certified organic food standards prohibits the use of any genetically modified organisms. Any products labelled as 100 per cent organic, organic or made with organic ingredients will not contain genetically modified organisms. Our organic standards require attentive and detailed care be given to the way our food is raised, grown and produced.

2. Avoid at-risk ingredients
One easy way to avoid eating genetically modified foods is by simply avoiding known brands and products. Mass processed foods containing soy, corn or canola is a good place to start. Try using grape seed oil instead of canola oil.

3. Learn about the foods you eat
There's lots of companies, brands and grocery stores out there competing for your money- so why not support sustainable agriculture? Or what least know where your money is going. Here are two useful shopping guides to genetically modified foods: the Centre for Food Safety's Non-GMO Shopping Guide and the Greenpeace shopper's guide to genetically modified food

Finding Genetically Modified Foods in the kitchen

To better understand the foods I eat, I decided to take stock of my pantry and fridge and do a little comparison shopping. And, while I started off with an average understanding of the foods I buy, I did find a few surprises along the way. Here's a list of the thumbs-down foods with genetically modified ingredients that won't be getting re-stocked in my kitchen.


Robin Hood White Flour

V8 Tomato Juice
Sleemans beer

Kellogs Raisin Bran

Hellmann's Real Mayonnaise
Prepared creamed horseradish
Heinz Tomato Ketchup

Stoned Wheat Thins

Haagen-Dazs Ice Cream

Recommended Reading

The CBC Archives includes a section called Genetically Modified Food: a growing debate and includes information and short videos with a focus on Canada.

Deconstructing Dinner, based in Nelson, British Columbia is a website and radio studio with a ton of information including podcasts discussing current food issues.

Greenpeace Canada Shopper's Guide to genetically modified food.

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