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Science and Silliness: Genetically Engineered Food is Nothing to Get Pie-Faced About

21.aug.00, Douglas Powell, K-W Record

How fitting that Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien got pied in PEI by someone with the usual litany of complaints about capitalism, corporations and, the current symbol for all things big and bad, genetically engineered food. Not that the pie undoubtedly contained ingredients and flavourings derived from genetically engineered crops such as corn, soy and canola. No, the irony, and rather sad environmental aspect, is that the Island is once again grappling with the issue of fishkills, at least partially resulting from agricultural run-off when its prized potatoes are sprayed to control pests.
A report released last month by the Prince Edward Island Cancer Research Council quite reasonably argued that people involved in the potato farming industry want solutions that will reduce pesticide use, just like everyone else. PEI Agriculture Minister Mitch Murphy responded by saying the report raised many serious issues that deserve to be dealt with -- there's a catchy comeback -- and that his government was moving ahead on several fronts to reduce pesticide use, including implementation of pilot projects and agricultural guidelines. But what they won't say is that a solution -- at least a partial solution -- already exists.
Potatoes genetically-engineered to contain a natural toxin from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis have been developed, assessed, approved and commercially available since 1996. And they work, specifically against the Colorado potato beetle, one of the most damaging insect pests of potatoes. Each female can lay close to 400 eggs, most of which will hatch into voracious larvae that can destroy an entire potato crop. Growers of so-called Bt-potatoes have observed a dramatic decrease in the need for chemical sprays to produce spuds for processing and the fresh market. Newer varieties also contain viral resistance, decreasing the need to spray for aphids, the leaf-roll virus' preferred shuttle for moving from plant to plant.  But last fall, Harrison McCain of frozen French fried fame, declared that Bt-potatoes would not be accepted at his processing plants, citing consumer concerns and European backlash. Which leads back to Mr. Chretien. Another Island activist along for the pie ride was gleefully telling CBC yesterday that, "This is for all of Jean Chretien's social crimes but in particular because he is force feeding genetically engineered food on the public of Canada without any testing or labelling and he's also trying to force feed it on the rest of the world." Leave aside the science and the silliness: will Canadian consumers knowingly purchase genetically-engineered food? There has been much speculation but little data.
For the past six months, my lab has been working with Jeff Wilson, a producer who farms 300 acres of fresh fruits and vegetables near Toronto, to establish a model farm where genetically-engineered sweet corn and potatoes are grown side-by-side with conventional varieties. The project was publicly announced on June 6 following public meetings and consultation with neighbours. Now that the crops are beginning to emerge, a walking trail has been opened (in response to customer demand) where visitors to the farm market are able to stroll among the crops and garner a better understanding of the trade-offs and technologies involved in food production. To date, customers have been extremely supportive and curious; they have not, contrary to the European and increasingly the North American theatrical tactic favored by pie-throwers and their ilk, expressed a desire to trample crops. The corn and potatoes will be ready for harvest next week <as whole foods that can easily be labelled and segregated> and direct consumer testing for purchasing preference will be conducted at the farm market and several other supermarkets in Ontario. The research is designed to help farmers decide what technologies are most appropriate for their farming operations and to help consumers wade through the growing mythologies regarding various methods of crop production. For example, sweet corn is a nutritious vegetable that I can easily persuade my children to eat. However, sweet corn is also produced using a lot of chemical sprays. Field trials in the U.S. have demonstrated a significant reduction in pesticide use on genetically-engineered Bt sweet corn. And rather than just lobbing soundbites, we are seeking to add some meaningful data to the public conversation about genetically-engineered foods, and food production in general. A web site has been created that contains numerous background documents as well as weekly updates on the crops' development ( Interested members of the public, journalists, farmers, and others are invited to visit Birkbank Farms over the growing season to learn more about production alternatives and integrated pest management. Because when given the choice, perhaps and Ontarians and even Islanders would prefer safe, affordable and nutritious food that is grown with reduced levels of chemicals.

Douglas Powell is an assistant professor in the department of plant agriculture at the University of Guelph.