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Frankenfoods unbound

Biofreedom group warns Edmonton of dangers of genetically modified food

The world of genetically modified organisms is a difficult one to explore.
Sure, most of us know that GMOs exist, but this is usually where our general
knowledge ends and the questions begin. While making canola seed resistant to
pesticides purportedly produces higher yields, what could it be doing to the
environment? While tampering with strawberry genes may be beneficial for the
food’s shelf life, what could it be doing to our bodies? According to
people like Trevor King of the Edmonton-based GMO awareness group Biofreedom,
the thought that these products have been released out of the lab before
these questions could be answered is a frightening one indeed.

“To me, it’s shocking that these things have been released out
of the lab and into the ecosystem without enough research,” says King,
whose group will be screening the documentary Deconstructing Supper next
Thursday at Metro Cinema in an effort to bring these issues into the public
eye. “I mean, DNA is a very, very complex thing, and for someone to
bash a couple of genes together because a fish gene would work well in a
strawberry to keep it from freezing—it’s a good idea if it works
and if the long-term ramifications are understood. But just the fact that
strawberry doesn’t freeze doesn’t mean that all the effects are
understood.”

Biofreedom is a volunteer-based organization that believes that
genetically engineered (GE) crops and products have been introduced into
Canadian markets without adequate testing. The group feels that this may be
putting the health of all Canadians at risk and could put our country’s
farmers in a sticky financial situation should foreign markets continue to
refuse the importation of GE products. As such, Biofreedom is calling on the
government of Canada to implement a moratorium on all GE crops until such
time as sufficient long-term scientific tests have proven without doubt that
GMOs are safe. The group is also seeking a mandatory labeling system for any
products that contain GE crops.

According to King, the problem with GMOs is not that there is an absence
of research being conducted on their potential effects; rather, it’s
that the only research being accepted is that which is done by the biotech
companies themselves, while outside studies are summarily discarded.

“The one thing that disturbs me more than anything,” says
King, “is that almost all of the science is done by the industry
itself. Whenever Health Canada or the Food and Drug Administration approves
something, it’s based on this research, and they just accept it at face
value without really knowing from independent research what negative effects
it could have.”

An even larger problem, King adds, is that all too often, scientists who
do decide to publish independent studies on biotechnology quickly find
themselves in the unemployment line. King points to the cases of Jane Akre of
Fox News and Árpád Pusztai, formerly of the Rowett Institute in
the U.K. as examples of this. In 1997, Akre and her husband began researching
the effects of rBGH, a genetically altered growth hormone produced by
Monsanto that was intended to induce higher milk production in cows. But once
they compiled their data into a story for Fox News, they were fired for their
troubles.

Same thing with Pusztai, King continues. In 1998 he conducted a study on
the effects of genetically engineered potatoes on lab rats; over time, the
rats were developing inflamed organs, brain issues, inflamed
testicles—so he decided to publish his results and come forward. But
when he did, he got booted from the institute…. All of a sudden he was a
nutjob, whereas one week before he was a celebrated scientist.”

According to King, all the vagueness and secrecy that surrounds the issue
of GMOs is actually beneficial to the biotechnology industry. King feels that
the fact that companies like Monsanto refuse to show up to public debates
regarding their products and adamantly oppose any sort of labeling on food
products indicates a belief that the less people know about the specifics of
genetic engineering, the better. The issue of labeling (or lack thereof) is
one that particularly frustrates King.

“The things that the Canadian public should be most outraged
about,” he says, “is the fact that genetically engineered crops
and GMOs have already been released, and there currently exists no mandatory
labeling laws to ensure that the consumers knows what they’re buying. I
mean, if they’re so proud of this and so confident that it’s not
a bad thing, then why won’t they stand up for it?

“Then you have stores here like Superstore, which is owned by
Loblaws,” he continues. “They sent out letters to suppliers of
organic products that had ‘GE free’ or ‘GMO free’
labeling on the packaging, saying that they had to take this claim off their
product or the store would pull their products off the shelves or start
markering the claim out. I think it should be the other way around,
obviously, and consumers should be applying pressure so that they start to
meet our wishes. Because I know I would really prefer to make that choice
rather than have someone else make it for me.”

But in order to facilitate this kind of change, the general public needs
to inform itself as to the issues of genetically engineered foods, and King
feels that attending the screening of Deconstructing Supper is as good a
start as any. “The thing I like about it is that it’s not done
through a scientist’s eyes, it’s done through the eyes of a chef,
and the film lets the audience make up their own mind about the information
it presents,” he says. “But I hope that people who see this movie
are really afraid, and I hope that people get active about it,” he
says. “Everybody eats; this affects all of us.” V

 Deconstructing Supper screens Thursday, April 22 at 6:30 p.m. at
Metro Cinema (Zeidler Hall, The Citadel).

 

Supper rush

In the first few minutes of the anti-GMO documentary
Deconstructing Supper, a waiter (who is almost
certainly not moonlighting to support an acting career) approaches chef and
Vancouver restaurateur John Bishop in his restaurant’s kitchen and says
that some customers are asking if he uses any genetically modified foods in
his meals. Bishop sheepishly admits in the voiceover he doesn’t even
know what GMOs are, and, showing an unusual amount of curiosity, conviction
and spare time, he embarks on a journey that takes him from Canada to Great
Britain and India, all to find out the truth about the elusive GMO. Whether
or not Bishop was successful in his quest is largely debatable, and the film
itself has a few faults, but at the very least, Deconstructing Supper is a
serviceable introduction into the motives and the need for the biochemical
engineering of foods.

Along his way, Bishop meets with organic vegetable farmers, anti-GMO
activists, and a few gene technology pundits in an effort to get the dirt on
genetically modified foods. Soon, he discovers the overwhelming opposition to
the technology among farmers in Canada, England and India, all of whom feel
that GE wheat, canola and corn seeds are a needless technologization
(that’s a word, right?) of a process that farmers have been doing
themselves for years by saving seeds and crossbreeding certain plants to
display certain traits.

Most of the farmers Bishop talks to (among them Percy Schmeiser, the
Saskatchewan farmer currently embroiled in a legal battle against Monsanto, a
GE company whose engineered canola seed wound up in Schmeiser’s organic
fields without the farmer’s knowledge) feel that genetically modifying
seeds has no real benefit compared to traditional plant breeding, save that
it allows companies like Monsanto to own and control the seed market. In
India, Bishop meets with eco-activist Vanada Shiva, who explains that GE
seeds are touted for their higher yields, but come at the expense of loss of
field biodiversity and soil depletion. These arguments are clear and
convincing, and will prove to be the heart of the film for the casual
moviegoer. But that said, the film sports a few flaws that tend to detract
from its achievements.

For one, being a chef, the criteria with which Bishop chooses to evaluate
organic versus GE foods is, well, how they taste when cooked. This
isn’t necessarily a bad idea in itself, but it’s clear that the
test material in this evaluation is a little weighted in favour of organics.
For the organic meals, Bishop uses only fresh vegetables straight from the
garden, creating delicious-looking culinary delights that would make
anyone’s mouth water. But when he makes a meal with GE foods, what does
he pick to represent the other side? A bag of crappy potatoes from a
supermarket and a can of generic cream of chicken soup that apparently has GE
corn starch in it. I’m sure that even the best chef in the world would
have difficulty in making a fine meal out of Western Family soup, and
unsurprisingly, Bishop is not impressed with the results.Perhaps the use of
some equally fresh examples would have made his point a little easier to
swallow.

Still, despite this bias and a general propensity on behalf of the
director to assume the audience knows more about the subject matter than they
likely would, Deconstructing Supper is ultimately an approachable and useful
primer on the world of GMOs. Could it have used a little more depth? Oh,
probably. But come on, people: that’s what books are for. —Chris
Boutet

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