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Why GM Food Theatrics Don't Fool the Crowd

14.nov.00, Douglas Powell, Shane Morris and Katija Blaine, National Post C19

They were all there Friday night in Vancouver, a Who's Who of the big-is-bad bunch, offering up warnings about the perils of genetically engineered foods in a so-called teach-in, a sidelight to a biotech conference that's on this week.

Greenpeace and its ilk claim many of their concerns relate to lack of consumer choice. However, in Europe, the consumer now has been left with absolutely no choice over GM food whatsoever. Under pressure from green lobby groups, many food retailers (not consumers) have decided not to stock GM food products. But what if they did?

The same tactics have been tried before, at home and abroad, but as the public discussion matures to consider risks and benefits, these social actors are becoming irrelevant, increasingly focused on theatrics rather than meaningful input.

Genetic engineering has come to represent everything that is perceived to be bad about food and agricultural production, including corporate control, scientific intervention with the forces of mysticism and the apparent dominance of a gene that makes many of us eat a whole bag of potato chips at one sitting (www.theonion.com/onion3531/gene_chips.html). These latest salvos followed efforts tied in with Halloween, which were largely unreported but nevertheless entertaining. Greenpeace's mascot, FrakenTony, appeared at Nathan Philips Square in Toronto during lunchtime to give children a lesson on genetically modified foods. U.S. counterparts converged outside Kellogg's Michigan headquarters with a 25-foot ear of corn and a trick-or-treat bag that said, "Kellogg's: Stop Using Scary Corn." Dee Dee (who refused to give her last name) of the U.K. Bioengineering Action Network told Michigan State University, again on Halloween, that genetic engineering is "a tool of capitalism."

As a recent study showed, children -- and my four goblins were carousing the neighbourhood on Halloween -- are much more at risk from cars than from nefarious objects or ingredients hidden in Halloween candy, stainless steel or otherwise.

Greenpeace and others ask, "Would you want your kids to eat genetically modified Frosted Flakes?" As with Halloween candy, they miss the point. Frosted Flakes may not be the most nutritious breakfast cereal, but for comparative purposes, the answer is yes. Genetically engineered Bt field corn has up to 30 to 40 times lower levels of naturally occurring fungal toxins. And the 5% to 15% yield increases across the board mean those Frosted Flakes are better for the environment.

The latest tack of some of the groups is to bill themselves as friends of farmers. The Toronto Star recently carried a statement from a European Greenpeace member whose message to Canadian farmers amounted to, "We think we're the friends of farmers. There's a market share for them in Europe." This borders on insulting Canadian farmers' intelligence, because in Europe, Greenpeace has actively lobbied against the Canadian farm community in urging companies and retailers to source non-GM products outside Canada.

Greenpeace and its ilk claim many of their concerns relate to lack of consumer choice. However, in Europe, the consumer now has been left with absolutely no choice over GM food whatsoever. Under pressure from green lobby groups, many food retailers (not consumers) have decided not to stock GM food products. But what if they did?

In an attempt to move beyond street theatre and sound bites, my lab teamed up with a commercial fruit and vegetable grower, Jeff Wilson, a farmer who was willing to put his business and his livelihood on the line. Together, we created a demonstration project growing genetically engineered sweet corn and potatoes side by side with conventional counterparts. The project evolved into a model farm that provided unfettered access to consumers, media and yes, even Greenpeace. More than 1,000 people took the three-kilometre, self-guided walking tour through the crops to evaluate the choices for themselves.

We segregated and labelled the crops, tracked sales in the farm market and interviewed consumers. We have been completely open about our intentions and results, and welcomed criticisms as a way to improve the project. And when the data is compiled, we will let reviewers at scientific journals judge the merits of our results. For those who couldn't visit the farm, we provided weekly text and video updates, as well as background material at www.plant.uoguelph.ca/safefood/bt-sweet-corn/bt-index.htm.

But some journalists, particularly at The Toronto Star, couldn't help themselves, resorting to superficial stereotypes, caricatures and the mindless banter of pro versus anti, missing the point that providing food consumers are interested in buying involves a series of trade-offs and considerations that are specific to individual farms and locales. Rather than citing recent reports from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (which say genetically engineered crops are safe but require further oversight), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (which said genetically engineered Bt field corn is safe for the environment and may even prove beneficial for non-target insects such as the Monarch butterfly: www.epa.gov/scipoly/sap/), and a Sept. 29 U.S. federal court ruling against Greenpeace and others (confirming the policy for assessing safety and labelling of genetically engineered crops), The Star reported that next month will see "the expected release of studies criticizing GM foods."

In the end, many of the efforts by Greenpeace and others have had little effect in Canada and North America because of their focus on the hypothetical and their strict adherence to doctrine. Despite the mantra of mandatory labelling from Greenpeace and others, when a whole food like sweet corn was segregated and labelled, and consumers voted their preference (7,800 cobs of Bt sweet corn were sold at the market, compared with 5,190 cobs of conventional corn), Greenpeace simply cried that the study was tainted.

We simply ask that consumers be allowed to decide for themselves.

Douglas Powell is an assistant professor and Shane Morris and Katija Blaine are research assistants at the Centre for Safe Food at the University of Guelph.