GMOs: How does it feel to be a human guinea pig?
A friend and I once visited the South American country of Peru. In the historic Andean city of Cusco, we partook of some traditional Incan food. My friend ordered roasted guinea pig. Not keen on eating rodent, I chose something else on the menu. When I asked my friend how his meal tasted, he replied with the now cliché, “like chicken.”
With the recent release into Canadian supermarkets of genetically modified (GM) Atlantic salmon, guinea pigs are again on my mind.
According to the product’s enthusiasts, eaters will be eager to buy this apparently super healthy and delicious food. It’s “one of the world’s healthiest foods,” says its manufacturer, AquaBounty.
“The flesh is exquisite. Buttery, light, juicy,” says the food writer for the Toronto Star.
GM Atlantic salmon is the world’s first-ever GM food animal. The fish eggs are produced in Prince Edward Island and then transported to a rearing factory in Panama. The finished product is exported back to Canada for public consumption.
According to the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN), GM Atlantic salmon brings the number of GM whole foods available in Canada to nine. GM corn, canola, soybeans, sugar beets and alfalfa are grown in Canada. GM cottonseed oil, papaya, squash and now Atlantic salmon are imported from other countries.
However, myriad processed food items – an estimated 75-85 per cent of those on offer in our supermarkets – contain GMOs: breakfast cereals, yogurt, soft drinks, frozen entrees, salad dressings, condiments and many more. The cooking oils used to deep fry most fast-food French fries are – you guessed it – GMO.
What are GM (or genetically engineered) foods anyway? To answer that question, it is helpful to know what genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are.
According to the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO), GMOs are organisms – plants, animals or micro-organisms – in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination. It allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another and also between nonrelated species. Foods containing GMOs are referred to as GM foods.
Are GM foods really safe to eat? Bayer, a multinational life sciences corporation and manufacturer of GMOs, states emphatically that GMOs are safe.
“Regulatory authorities around the world have concluded that GM crops are as safe for humans, animals, and the environment as non-GM crops,” Bayer says.
On the face of it, Bayer’s claim is accurate. The WHO, for example, says that, “GM foods…on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health.”
In Canada, Health Canada approves all GM foods before they are released into the marketplace. Those it has endorsed for sale are safe for Canadians to eat, the government agency says.
But – and it’s a big “but” – according to CBAN, Health Canada does not conduct its own tests on GM foods. It relies on information provided by GMO-producing corporations like Bayer. Information, CBAN adds, that isn’t made public.
And therein lies the rub. GM foods that even Health Canada says are safe are not subject to truly independent testing. They are tested mostly by their makers which, like Bayer, have an obvious financial interest.
“There is very little independent science on GM food safety questions,” CBAN says, “partly because governments are content to rely on corporate science to assess the safety of new GM foods.” Independent studies that do exist indicate that “the process of genetic engineering could result in toxic effects, allergic responses, or altered nutrition.”
Additionally, CBAN says, “there is no monitoring of GM foods which means we do not know if the foods we have been eating for the past 20 years have had any health impacts.”
Labelling is another point of contention. GM foods are generally not labelled. There is no law in Canada requiring manufacturers to do so. Any “GMO Free” labelling we may see is voluntary. It should be obvious to readers why the Bayers of the world prefer it that way.
Does it matter to us that the food we are eating might be genetically modified? Are we concerned that GM foods are not labelled? Do we care that our right to make a free choice is affectively denied?
We must answer those questions for ourselves. As things are it seems that we, the public, are the guinea pigs in the testing of the long-term safety of GMOs.
Gary W. Kenny is retired from a career in international human rights and development and is a writer who resides in rural Grey county.