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Entries in Dr. Joe Schwartz (1)


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.