Scitech  Genetic modification: a growing controversy

Genetically modified foods are everywhere, and are intensely controversial. Food is a topic close to everyone’s hearts (and stomachs) and genetic modification (GM) is one of the most divisive issues today. To promote engagement between the anti and pro-GMO advocates, the “Mind The Gap” panel, held at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, brought together a scientist, a Greenpeace activist, a Monsanto spokesperson, and an artist to take part in a discussion of the merits of GM.

Illimar Altosaar, a professor of biochemistry, microbiology, and immunology at the University of Ottawa, opened the discussion. Emphatically pro-GM, he provided impressive examples of rice, eggplant, and cotton engineered to be insect-resistant, explaining that they dramatically reduce labour and pesticide use. By the end of the discussion, the anti-GM participants had talked about the food system, corporate control, and agricultural practices, but hardly mentioned the organisms Altusaar brought up. The crux of the evening’s panel and the GM debate as a whole is that it isn’t only about GM itself, but everything surrounding GM – the governments, regulatory agencies, companies, farms – in short, the food system as a whole – that creates controversy.

Eric Darier, the Senior Campaigner on agriculture at Greenpeace Canada, opposed GM. He talked about the importance of crop rotation for soil quality and the widespread use of food to feed inefficient livestock. Claire Pentecost, a professor of photography at the School of Art Institute of Chicago who has studied the GM issue, added that heavy pesticide and fertilizer use which often accompanies GM foods can have unintended effects on soil quality and cause weed resistance. Darier agreed, describing GM as the “continuation of industrial agriculture.” But Altosaar pointed out that GM is “scale-neutral,” making the point that technologies based on GM plants – which increase resistance to parasites – are useful regardless of the size or type of farm. In this way, GM helps reduce pesticide and fertilizer use.

Darier later went on to speak about the danger of allowing a handful of companies (including Monsanto) to control the seed market. He criticized the regulatory system in Canada as ineffective. When others said GM has been widely studied and found to be safe, he responded that close relationships between regulators and industry, as well as the fact that scientific funding came from biotech giants like Monsanto, undermine its credibility. A show of hands in the audience confirmed that two-thirds shared Darier’s distrust of regulatory agencies. When the public no longer have confidence in the independence of scientists and regulators, this takes science off the table in the GM debate.

Both Pentecost and Altosaar noted that there is little funding to conduct studies on GM food, except for funding provided by the developers themselves. This leaves a body of research that the public remains skeptical of – no matter how thorough and rigorous – because of its ties to industry.

Trish Jordan, Director of Public and Industry Affairs at Monsanto Canada, emphasized that farmers are free to choose if they want to purchase GM seeds and, if so, from whom they want to purchase them. Darier responded by outlining the risk that “whoever controls the food system controls society,” and said that only six companies control most GM seeds. Widespread adoption of GM would concentrate great power in the hands of those corporations.

Near the end of the discussion, Pentecost concluded, “Science isn’t [just] about science. And science doesn’t have a monopoly on the truth.” At the core, GM isn’t an issue of science; it’s an issue of politics and trust. Information that both sides believe is scarce. At one point, Jordan said to Darier, “just because you say it doesn’t make it right.” A lot of things are being said in the GM debate, but evidence that everyone agrees on seems out of reach. With so many questions and so few answers, deciding on the future of our food system is not going to be easy. But with 800 million hungry people and an unprecedented global population , it is essential.

“Mind the Gap” ties in with Seeds, a documentary play about GM foods playing until November 24 at Centaur Theatre.