What's So Bad About...Genetically Modified Foods - Sweet Potato Chronicles - Sweet Potato Chronicles

What's So Bad About…Genetically Modified Foods

I scream, you scream, we all scream for trans­genic, eel extru­sion ice cream. No? Well that’s what man­u­fac­tur­ers are hop­ing with their lat­est inno­va­tion in the quest for low fat ice cream genet­i­cally engi­neered to taste as good as high fat favourites.

Genet­i­cally mod­i­fied foods—the process of enhanc­ing cer­tain traits of a food by iso­lat­ing a gene in one breed and adding it to another—has been around for decades and con­cerns about it are not new. But until recently, the tech­nol­ogy has largely cen­tred on mod­i­fy­ing crop hearti­ness and pest resis­tance. Now, a new breed of genet­i­cally mod­i­fied organ­isms (GMO’s)—touting health and flavour benefits—has come to the North Amer­i­can plate. With iron-fortified cere­als, calcium-packed OJ, and pro­bi­otic cheese, food that doesn’t do dou­ble duty is appar­ently passé.  Cor­po­ra­tions are clam­our­ing to cre­ate super-foods and genetic engi­neer­ing appears to be the future of food. Is it safe to eat what skep­tics have dubbed Frankenfood?

Exam­ples of GMO’s you likely encounter in the aver­age gro­cery store are plen­ti­ful.  About that eel ice cream; Dutch com­pany Unilever has dis­cov­ered that adding “a pro­tein cloned from the blood of an Arc­tic fish” pro­duces a very creamy prod­uct with­out all the fat. While the ice cream doesn’t actu­ally con­tain any fish genes, in a com­plex process the com­pany genet­i­cally engi­neers a cloned ver­sion of the pro­tein using a strain of yeast which pre­vents ice crys­tal­liza­tion, the arch enemy of ice cream.

Enjoy a glass of wine or two? Although cur­rently rid­ing high with news reports on its heart dis­ease pre­ven­tion ben­e­fits, alco­hol falls into the cat­e­gory of things we feel we should limit in a healthy diet.  Imag­ine if you didn’t have to. While it’s likely at least 5 years in the mak­ing, grapes mod­i­fied to pro­duce bet­ter bal­anced, more flavour­ful wines are the real­is­tic evo­lu­tion of research cur­rently under way. And one expert says they’ll likely be bred to have higher antiox­i­dant content.

And not to leave our lit­tle crea­ture friends out of the excite­ment, cur­rently resid­ing at the Uni­ver­sity of Mis­souri, are pigs that have been cloned to pro­duce heart-healthy, omega 3 fats. Finally, accord­ing to renowned food writer Mark Bittman in a recent New York Times arti­cle, the U.S.D.A is expected to approve a genet­i­cally mod­i­fied, super fast grow­ing salmon to be sold in the U.S.
For some it’s a tempt­ing vision of the future of food. Instead of restraint, can we sim­ply tin­ker with our favourite foods and avoid depri­va­tion alto­gether. Can we speed up the growth and boost the nutri­tion of food with no con­se­quence? Is it real­ity or clever marketing?

Erik Darier of Greenpeace’s sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture cam­paign says its hype. “These so-called mir­a­cle foods are an attempt by cor­po­ra­tions to cap­i­tal­ize on people’s gen­uine con­cerns about health and nutri­tion.” Accord­ing to Darier, large com­pa­nies want­ing to con­trol the food sup­ply are sug­gest­ing that they can arti­fi­cially pro­duce healthy foods, but the research to date has been done by those same com­pa­nies. And although GE foods are among some of the most heav­ily tested foods, the FDA and Health Canada actu­ally require no more strin­gent test­ing than for other foods and there are no long term human stud­ies on any of these foods. Dr. Steve Lund, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of Viti­cul­ture and Plant Genomics at UBC doesn’t share Darier’s qualms. “I have no con­cerns con­sum­ing GE foods or feed­ing them to my chil­dren,” he says. A bold state­ment but Lund has sci­ence on his side. “I know what genetic sequences are used for com­mer­cial prod­ucts and I know that they’re safe for humans." He does con­cede that sci­ence has done a poor job of com­mu­ni­cat­ing this to allay con­sumer fears.

And that’s a big part of the prob­lem. Accord­ing to Mark Bittman, “the F.D.A. and the U.S.D.A. do not require any of these GMO prod­ucts, or foods con­tain­ing them, to be labeled as genet­i­cally engi­neered, because they don’t want to sug­gest that these foods are dif­fer­ent and bias the con­sumer.” But Darier says over 40 coun­tries, includ­ing Aus­tralia, South Africa and 25 EU nations have manda­tory label­ing of GE foods, and, accord­ing to Green­peace research, 88% of Cana­di­ans are in favour of it here. With the tech­nol­ogy broad­en­ing into new foods, the issue is likely to become a hot one. Accord­ing to Darier upwards of 40 crops (mostly vari­eties of corn, canola and soya) planted in Canada con­tain GMO’s well as one vari­ety of rice, 5 pota­toes and 1 tomato that have all received approval. Some esti­mates and a quick check with Health Canada put the total num­ber of approved foods at over 80 and Darier says about 70% of our food con­tains some GE ingre­di­ents, largely due to the vol­ume of processed food we eat con­tain­ing grains. Accord­ing to the Cana­dian Organic Grow­ers “Canada is the world’s 4th lead­ing pro­ducer of genet­i­cally mod­i­fied crops."

Is there enough evi­dence that these foods are safe? Accord­ing to Darier, the label­ing and test­ing issues sug­gest that “there’s no trans­parency, so the ques­tion becomes, who can we trust?” He cites one case where Green­peace accessed gen­er­ally tightly held pro­pri­etary infor­ma­tion about a Monsanto-produced GMO corn. “The company’s own research showed increased lev­els of organ tox­i­c­ity and hor­monal changes in rats but the gov­ern­ment still approved it for human consumption.”

But Darier is con­fi­dent the pen­du­lum will swing. “Con­sumers aren’t stu­pid. There’s a 15 to 20 per cent annual increase in demand for organic foods.” And while he admits it’s dif­fi­cult if not impos­si­ble to pull back entirely from genetic mod­i­fi­ca­tion, he believes the cur­rent push in Que­bec and B.C. for label­ing will win out, giv­ing con­sumers the final word.

Some argue GMO’s pose the most likely risk to chil­dren with their fast devel­op­ing sys­tems. With a lack of long term human test­ing the truth is we just don’t know. So what can you do if you choose to avoid GMO’s?

1. Buy foods labeled 100% organic. Canada and the US do not allow these foods to con­tain any GMO’s.  If it just says organic, all bets are off.

2. Accord­ing to Nutri­tion Research Cen­tre at least 85% of soy­beans, corn, sugar beets and canola are grown from GMO seeds. Avoid pack­aged foods with these ingre­di­ents as well as farm raised salmon which is usu­ally raised on GMO feed

3. Buy whole, unprocessed foods

4. Check fruit and veg­gie PLU num­bers. Four dig­its means non GMO, 5 dig­its start­ing with an 8 means GMO and 5 dig­its start­ing with a 9 means organic

5. Have the space? Grow your own.



  1. I can't believe that we still don't have laws around labelling of GMO foods in Canada. It's star­tling and a wee bit frightening.

  2. […] no… GMOs! If eel in your ice cream could make it low-fat and tasty, would you eat it? You prob­a­bly already are. [Sweet Potato […]

  3. Adrienne Fraioli says:

    If you think the food is unhealthy in Canada you
    should come down to the States. God knows what were eat­ing down here.

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