Science in the supermarket

What do Corn Flakes, chocolate bars, baby formula and toothpaste have in common? They all may contain ingredients made from genetically modified crops. In fact, when you walk down the supermarket aisle, you’re passing hundreds of products that contain genetically modified material. About 75 per cent of the processed foods we buy contain ingredients that come from genetically engineered crops. The way food is grown and sold in Canada has changed dramatically over the years, and many consumers are just now catching up with what is going on.

In the past twenty years, the science of breeding new living organisms has taken a quantum leap. Researchers have taken hybridization down to a molecular level, allowing them to exchange genes between almost any two living things. New genetic engineering techniques allow scientists to take two very dissimilar organisms, and insert the genes of one into the other. Researchers, for example, can now insert fish genes into a tomato.

Biofood benefits

But why would anyone want to do this? Supporters of bioengineered foods say the potential is almost limitless. Dietitian Milly Ryan-Harshman says in the future, everounce of food could pack a more nutritional punch. “If you can use biotechnology to enhance the vitamins and minerals in those food products, you can reduce the incidence of certain kinds of disease,” she says.

Looking to the future, Ryan-Harshman sees food more specifically tailored to a person’s genetic makeup, giving people more options in the foods they choose. If you want milk with no lactose, or bananas with high fibre, it may someday be possible.

But unfortunately for the industry, many of those consumer benefits are still years away. And, consumers can’t directly see these benefits. As a result, public reaction to the technology is decidedly mixed.

So far, discoveries have been mostly concentrated on agricultural benefits; plants that are resistant to herbicides, insects and diseases. Although there are 42 crops currently approved, only a few are fresh fruits and vegetables, and none are currently being sold in Canada.

More study needed

Is there a downside to genetically modified foods? Well-known scientist David Suzuki has says that at least for now, the potential dangers of this science outweigh the benefits. “Any politician or scientist who tells you these products are safe is either very stupid or lying,” he told the Canadian Health Food Association last fall. Some studies have suggested that pest-resistant corn may kill monarch butterflies, and rats became sick when fed modified potatoes, but even critics say there simply isn’t enough research to decide whether the crops are safe.

Next page: Mandatory labeling

Mandatory labeling

In fact, some feel the international tide is turning against genetic engineering of food. In the United Kingdom, foods with genetically modified ingredients must be labeled, and some stores there and in the U.S. have refused to carry them at all. Labeling will also soon be mandatory for some of the foods in Japan. These moves are a response to public outcry about the genetic engineering of food crops, particularly in Europe, which is still reeling from the mad cow scare.

A recent Southam poll suggests Canadians are also suspicious of biotechnology in their food. Although 75 per cent said they expected genetically engineered groceries to become commonplace by 2010, 62 per cent said they didn’t want that to happen.

But supporters of the technology say they have confidence in Canada’s regulatory system. Peter Elwood is the president of Lipton, which is Canada’s biggest margarine producer. As such, it uses ingredients that come from the most often engineered crops: corn, soybeans and canola. He says all the products in the food chain in Canada go through a rigorous regulatory approval process. “We’re very interested in any part of biotechnology science that improves the quality of food, as long as it goes through that rigorous testing and approval process,” he says.

So if you’ve been buying Becel margarine, you’ve already eaten ingredients from engineered crops. Why didn’t you know this before? Right now, food companies can’t even say what percentage of the crops they use are genetically modified. The crops are mixed in with non-engineered crops before being processed. And, so far, there are no requirements to label food with genetically engineered components.

What about the consumers?

A project is underway now to establish voluntary labeling standards. The wording has to be informative, without being too complicated. But how do you explain gene splicing in 25 words or less?

Jennifer Hillard, of the Consumer’s Association of Canada, says any labeling should be specific and informative. “We’re not against labeling, but we haven’t found a way that’s working and misleading labels may be worse than no labeling at all.”

Food safety standards are exactly what concern many people. Last fall, 200 scientists from Health Canada’s Health Protection Branch signed a petition to protest against cuts to the Canadian food inspection system. They say there are not enough scientists to evaluate genetically modified foods.

Dietitian Ryan-Harshman says that is where the battle for bioengineered foods will be fought: in the eyes of the consumer. “People will accept a certain risk if they see a benefit to them. With biotechnology, people are not at that stage yet, where the benefit clearly outweighs the risk for them.”