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McCain's Hot Potato

04.dec.99, Douglas Powell, National Post

To hear another perspective, I invited a Greenpeace campaigner to speak with my class, in an academic setting. He declined. Too busy. Fair enough. I then noticed Greenpeace was having a public information night in Toronto on Nov. 9. Because the university administration encourages instructors to engage students in extra-curricular activities that complement lectures, I suggested that my class attend the evening meeting. The students were eager; Greenpeace wasn't, and told me it was a "sorta private thing, for donors." Turns out it was a gathering of 200 disciples listening to the Greenpeace gospel. It reminded me of that line from The Simpsons when Principal Skinner tells the class: "In the interests of honest and open debate, sit quietly and watch this educational film."

04.dec.99, Douglas Powell, National Post
Harrison McCain is a great friend of Greenpeace. While it may be difficult to imagine the patriarch of a Canadian agri-food empire sharing the ideological loveseat with a group like Greenpeace, McCain Foods' decision to stop processing genetically engineered potatoes means that both groups are interested in lowering food quality and using more chemicals to produce the spuds that go into the millions of pounds of fries McCain's produces each day.
The news is especially disheartening given that Prince Edward Island has been plagued by annual fish kills attributed to the chemicals used in potato production that seep (or flood) into the province's waterways.
Both groups say they are responding to consumer demand, but that demand has largely been created by groups such as Greenpeace, using selective and dubious science, mastering the sound bite and providing no credible alternatives.
At issue is the humble potato, a featured performer on the Canadian dinner plate, and a staple for millions worldwide. To produce the uniform, high-quality spuds that consumers and processors such as Mr. McCain demands -- all of it miraculously ready on the same day for processing -- farmers use a variety of inputs and technological tools.
Over the past 15 years, scientists have genetically engineered the potato using a gene from a natural soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt, to ward off the Colorado potato beetle, a prevalent potato pest. After extensive field testing, small quantities have been commercially available for the past few years. The technology seems to work, reducing need for chemical sprays. 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.
Mr. McCain says the science is sound, but he wants to wait "until the smoke clears away and until most people are at least reasonably satisfied that that's the right thing to do." But how are people to become reasonably satisfied when someone of the stature (and buying power) of Harrison McCain says "no thanks"?
This is exactly the strategy of groups such as Greenpeace, which immediately called for other brand names such as President's Choice and Betty Crocker to follow suit: the domino effect.
The argument, as laid out in press statements, is that products of genetic engineering may cause some unknown, theoretical health or environmental harm; therefore, the government should ban them or, in the absence of a ban, everything should be labelled to give consumers choice. Except that labelling, according to Greenpeace, will produce a de facto ban.
In other words, Greenpeace wants to impose its choice on all consumers.
Further, we should view with suspicion any calls to follow the European lead on labelling (or even bans): The labels are arbitrarily and hypocritically applied, based more on political optics than safety or consumer choice; and the European Union is facing increasing calls from member states to establish a single food safety agency with continent-wide powers modelled on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, whichis quite similar to the Canadian system.
Here is an example of Greenpeace's desire for informed choice. I teach a first-year risk analysis class at the University of Guelph and, of course, my students and I have been discussing agricultural biotechnology. To hear another perspective, I invited a Greenpeace campaigner to speak with my class, in an academic setting. He declined. Too busy. Fair enough. I then noticed Greenpeace was having a public information night in Toronto on Nov. 9. Because the university administration encourages instructors to engage students in extra-curricular activities that complement lectures, I suggested that my class attend the evening meeting. The students were eager; Greenpeace wasn't, and told me it was a "sorta private thing, for donors." Turns out it was a gathering of 200 disciples listening to the Greenpeace gospel. It reminded me of that line from The Simpsons when Principal Skinner tells the class: "In the interests of honest and open debate, sit quietly and watch this educational film."
Genetic engineering is a powerful technology, and therein lies both the promise and the angst. No doubt, some proponents of genetics have used and abused this science over the decades, largely due to the projection of contemporary social values. But having examined the testing and approval process for genetically engineered crops, I am confident (along with scientific bodies such as the Institute of Food Technologists and an international scientific committee of the OECD) that the system is rigorous and robust. The crops derived through other forms of genetic alteration, such as mutagenesis breeding, which deliberately induces mutations and creates new proteins, are similarly sound. There are many ways to mess around with genes, ways that cross species barriers and create new proteins; the point is to test the end product, regardless of how it was derived, rather than the process.
I am deeply concerned about the food supply's safety, and therefore argue that labelling be based on known health risks: The United States requires safe handling labels on raw meats and fresh juices, for example. Canada would be wise to follow suit. In the meantime, for those who find little comfort in scientific pronouncements, voluntary labels (as for organic and kosher products) don't impose a choice on consumers who may prefer to receive information on quality, taste and cost.
The use of genetically engineered foods in North America is not about feeding the world, nor is it about a better, more nutritious future that is dubious at best. North American farmers are investing in such crops because the technology works, increasing yields, reducing chemical and other inputs, and, in some cases enhancing the food supply's safety. For example, thanks to genetic engineering, Bt-containing corn significantly lowers amounts of mycotoxins produced by the fungus Fusarium, an animal and human health concern.
All new technologies are oversold, and agricultural biotechnology is no different. But genetic engineering of foodstuffs can, with proper oversight, contribute small, incremental improvements to food production, which cumulatively contribute to a safe, high-quality and inexpensive food supply.
Mr. McCain, and in fact, anyone from McCain's, has so far been unavailable for further comment, to address the hypocrisy of the company's decision. Will McCain's also ban all genetically engineered canola or soya oils used to make those French fries, and all flavourings that contain genetically engineered ingredients?
By hiding behind the rubric of consumer demand, companies such as McCain's are actually amplifying the social concerns about genetically engineered foods. The successful adoption of any new technology requires a rigorous system to integrate public concerns with scientific knowledge, to maximize the benefits of something like genetic engineering while actively and openly minimizing potential risks.

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