Genetically engineered (GE) foods are one of the hottest issues in the food and agriculture industries — and with good reason. This biotechnology will affect the world's future, impacting its population and environment.

Some estimates say up to 75% of the food Canadians eat contain genetically modified organisms (GMO), yet even the most diligent label readers have no way of knowing which products are GE. (In Canada, the primary crops of GE plants are canola, soybeans and corn, with potatoes, squash, tomatoes, flax, wheat and cottonseed also in production.) And despite a 1999 Environics poll concluding that 80% of respondents wanted labelling of GE foods, the federal government and food industry note that only a "voluntary" labelling system may be established.

GE foods include those that have genes from one species spliced into another to achieve traits such as making them resistant to weeds and insects. Concerns about genetic engineering include the possibility of pesticide-dependent crops reducing native populations of beneficial insects and plants; GE crops pollinating — and contaminating — non-GE plants (which would threaten certification for organic farmers); and the introduction of modified viruses and bacteria, which can cause new diseases foreign to the immune systems of plants, animals and humans. As well, the transference of food species, such as injecting a fish gene into a tomato, is a concern for people with allergies as they are not alerted to the possibility of an allergen without the labelling of GE products.

Once GE organisms are brought into the planet's ecosystem, the process is irreversible and years of evolution are completely disrupted. The impact could be perilous, and not only for the environment. It cannot be emphasized enough of the potential danger of transferring an allergen from a nut, for instance, into a soybean. A forkful of that GE product could be fatal to an unsuspecting consumer with nut allergies.

Along with these negative impacts of transgenic foods comes the issue of dependency, power and control, believes Ineke Booy, a certified-organic farmer with Mapleton Organic Dairy in Moorefield, Ont. "It pits the larger farmers against the smaller farmers; they comprise 30% of the farmers and produce 70% of the food," said Booy at a press conference at which chefs and organic farmers spoke out against GE foods. (See page 1 of our newsletter for more details about the conference.)

"Farmers don't really own the seed although they pay for it," she explained. "They actually lease it, as they have to sign an agreement that they only can grow it for the company they get it from. They are not allowed to keep any seed behind to use for next year's planting and they have to let the Monsanto police on their farms for inspection. These farmers have given up their freedom," Booy added.

Ultimately, farmers and consumers must decide what they want to produce and eat, and how their decisions will affect their health and the environment's. Long-term studies must be conducted before the safety of GE foods is determined and mandatory labelling must be established as soon as possible. In the meantime, the only way consumers can be sure that they're eating non-GE foods is by eating organic food.

For more information about GE foods, please check out some of the websites on our links page.

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