The need for transparency regarding genetic engineering of food sources

photoIjaz Rauf is CEO of SolarGrid Energy Inc. and an Adjunct Professor of Physics at York University

 

The first trans-genetic animal intended for human consumption recently received approval from Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in United States and I expect it to be the first approved trans-genetic animal food in Canada. The AquaAdvantage salmon, was first engineered more than 25 years ago by Canadian Scientists. Genetically engineered (GE) plant foods, like soybean, maize, rice, canola and potatoes have already reached the marketplace.

Many food labels in a supermarket constitute information-overload for consumers. However, I have yet to see labels that appraise us about the utilization of GE materials for production of the product. To me and many others, this contravenes our fundamental “right to know” and has significant impact on many socio-political, economic, health and even religious aspects of the public interest. Thus there is strong resistance to GE foods from environmental groups, consumer interest groups, sections of the public, religious groups and even scientists. One scientist did apply for a patent for his conceptual species “humanzee” to make his point.

Only a day after the FDA announced the approval of AquaAdvantage Salmon, I saw a petition on the Internet urging Canadian authorities not to follow suit.

In the US, Bill H.R.1599, passed last year, pre-empts states and local authorities from labeling and regulating GE foods and virtually blocks the FDA’s ability to design a national GE food labeling system.

Although pledging to appeal, environmental groups have lost their legal battle to stop the production of AquaBounty salmon in Canada.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) requires mandatory food labeling of GE foods, only if there is a health or safety concern, while information on GE testing and experimental data is not freely available. There is excessive secrecy surrounding the testing of GE animal foods. Testing is done by the corporations themselves who are interested in marketing of these GE food products. Test data are kept secret and not available to independent evaluation or scrutiny, as discussed on The Current on November 2, 2015.

In my view public mistrust and significant negative propaganda against GE foods has resulted in widespread conversion to consumption of organic foods. Organic food sales have grown more than 10 fold from 1997 to 2014. The value of the Canadian organic food market, at $3.5 billion per year, has tripled since 2006. Other agricultural-food farming has declined 17% between 2001 and 2011 while organic food farming has increased 66.5% during the same period in Canada.

It’s not just consumer conversion to organic foods that could be worrying the GE farmers. Some food producers are also giving in to consumer demands. Many manufacturers of processed foods – such as Ben and Jerry’s and General Mills - have announced that they will stop using genetically modified ingredients in their products. It seems that the act of not labeling GE foods, and excessive secrecy surrounding testing, is a spectacular own-goal in that it seems to be causing significant consumer anxiety, ultimately hurting the GE foods producers.

As the research and science of genetic engineering furthers, new GE foods may be brought to the market raising consumer concerns. I have some religion-relevant questions about genetically modified food. They are: If a plant product is engineered with an animal or bacterial gene, would it still be permissible to eat for Jains? We have already achieved genetic modification of animals using mice DNA, but if goats and cows are engineering using mice or pork DNA, would they remain Kosher or Halal? Religious or not, some people may be strongly put-off at the thought of their food containing genes of other species they normally would not eat.

Consumers should know what research is being conducted in this field of science and should be able to have confidence that there are ethical, religious, scientific and regulatory controls over the research and beyond. For almost one decade the conservative government in Canada had placed strict controls and censorship over scientists and their research. The new government one a victory on the promise of transparency in the government, I am expecting a true change in policies.

Our expectations surrounding GE foods can be satisfied by constituting a body that represents all sides of the interest groups, scientists, religious scholars, ethicists, manufacturers and marketers of GE foods and regulatory bodies, allowing them to work together and come up with a framework for regulating research and products resulting therefrom. Significant effort is required for educating the general public and we can be sure that public will support the right decisions as we witnessed in the Swiss vote - for the “Gene Protection Initiative” in 1998.

I would love to see what example is set for the rest of the world to follow by a government that won the recent election on the promise of transparency.

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