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Growing and Eating Genetically Modified Food, According to Dr. Joe

One of the most popular undergraduate courses at McGill University, in Montréal, has been “The Chemistry of Everyday Living” taught by Dr. Joe Schwarz. As the title implies, the professor teaches that chemicals are involved in most of our daily activities:

…….essentially everything that we see, touch or feel in the world and beyond falls into the realm of chemistry……Whether it's vitamin supplements, cholesterol, plastics, water filters, space travel, vaccines, smells, tastes, fabrics, cosmetics, cooking, air pollution, trans fats, sweeteners, medicines, genetically modified foods, climate change, the softness of toilet paper or the bouquet of a wine, we're dealing with chemistry. Even our thoughts and feelings can be traced to chemical activity in the brain.

Dr. Joe, as he is affectionately called by the local media, talks about these topics on radio and writes for a newspaper. Over the years, I have accumulated interesting trivia by reading his column. I have learned that the color purple, used as a textile dye, was only invented in the mid 19th century, and that all shampoos, regardless of their price tag, contain the same ingredients.

In one newspaper column, Dr. Joe explained the chemistry of genetically modifying food. He framed that subject in the context of feeding the universe. He reported that while the population of the world that needs to be fed is constantly growing, the amount of arable land to grow that food is not. In order to satisfy world hunger, Dr. Joe contends that agro businesses need to increase the productivity of finite farm land without disturbing existing wild life.

One way to meet that challenge, he reports, is to develop food plants that are more reliable, more resistant to disease, will grow larger and more abundantly. That may be done by fiddling with the DNA of the plant i.e., modifying its genetic make up. It is argued by some that if we do not now improve the productivity of food plants, people might starve in the future.

Not everyone agrees with that prediction or with anything that Dr. Joe has to say on the subject. Some have taken rather nasty jabs at him for reporting on the benefits to society of genetically modified food, or for writing about the alleged safety of systemic weed killers, accusing him of siding with chemical companies.

What puzzles me is that no one has yet reported, in mainstream media, what effect the growing and eating of genetically modified crops will have on the quality of our food or the health of our bodies. I will be so bold to surmise that scientists, who must rely heavily upon the generosity of the chemical industry to run their labs, might be reluctant to search for or report upon negative consequences [if there actually are any] of growing or consuming modified food. To do so might jeopardize the funding of their own research or adversely affect their careers. It is regrettable but quite understandable that they choose not to bite the hand that feeds them.

However, one should expect that, in some countries, where life is heavily regulated by strong central governments, [and one would be surprised to discover how many democracies are centrally controlled], such research is encouraged because those governments are held responsible for the health and welfare of their citizens; scientists in those countries are not afraid to tackle this subject.

What have they discovered about genetically modified foods? Do these foods cause us any harm? Is it necessary to take steps to grow food even more efficiently than we can now? And if we do, how will we be able to justify exposing ourselves and our planet to possible or potentially adverse health issues?

One thing is certain: lay people do not know what the term genetically modified food really means, nor is it easy for us to understand the science behind it. As of this moment, we have no irrefutable, repeated double-blinded tested, empirical evidence that such foods will do us or the planet any harm. All we have are personal gut feelings and the visceral reactions to a paltry amount of research by pundits and self appointed oracles who earn a living from beating the drums that scare us.

The average citizen is caught in the middle between those that say GM foods are safe and those that say they are not. More universally respected research needs to be done and shared unbiasedly with the public. Until we have answers, the phrase “genetically modified food” will continue to sounds scary to a large number of people and, to err on the side of caution, many of us will choose not to grow or eat it - if we can.

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Reader Comments (5)

Hi Allan, The United States Department of Agriculture likes to emphasize the individual health issue in talking about genetically modified foods and to say that there is no evidence that there is any harm to individual health from eating such foods. They don't like to talk about the harm to the planet, because the evidence there is much clearer. Farmers are now growing genetically modified "roundup-ready" crops; they can kill weeds with Roundup without harming their crops. But, oops, it turns out that the Roundup doesn't kill all the weeds and the ones that survive that process of "natural" selection reproduce as more weeds that can't be killed by Roundup. And pretty soon Roundup isn't an effective weed killer at all for the farmer, so he has to spray much more serious poisons. And I can't help noticing that, even though the justification for these genetic modifications are more efficient growth of food to feed the planet, in fact much of the genetically modified corn being grown is being used (1) to make high-fructose corn syrup and add some empty calories to much of what we eat (and drink), (2) to make fuel (ethanol), and (3) to fatten up cattle so that they are much less healthy and healthful than if they had been fed on grass. I don't think Dr. Joe is telling the whole story.

April 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJean

What I find scary about GM is that increasingly our food supply is controlled by multinational companies like Monsanto whose idea of acceptable risk is influenced by the lure of huge profits.

April 25, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercatmint

Corn fed cattle is making a lot of humans sick from eating beef. The fat content clogs arteries and is difficult to digest. I understand that Argentina is exporting grass fed beef around the world and it tastes exquisite. Unlike US beef, it has no corn-oil content so that it does not char when broiled. Its health benefits are multiple.

April 25, 2011 | Registered CommenterAllan

I have to say that I get frustrated with the knee-jerk reactions that many people have in response to GM foods. Love it that Dr. Joe mentions the people who don't have enough to eat. It's easy for us 'rich' Americans to rant against GM foods when we aren't the ones whose children are starving to death because there isn't enough food in the world. Anyway, it's definitely a complex issue and I think a nuanced position is better than either extreme.

April 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVW

If we lay people understood more about the science behind "acceptable risk" we might be able to argue more effectively with the multinationals.

April 26, 2011 | Registered CommenterAllan

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