DNA Day experts answer your questions about genetically modified food

Can we play with the genetics of livestock to get better meat?

Play is probably not the right word. We have been altering the genetics of the plants and animals we use for food for about 10,000 years now through breeding. Recently, we started altering the DNA of some of our food in the lab through genetic engineering. Using either breeding technique, we can certainly get "better" meat. (Of course, it depends on what you mean by better!)

- Answer provided by Dr. Sean Myles

Do you think that Genetically Modified animals (e.g. salmon) will be approved for human consumption in Canada in the near future? Do the benefits of introducing GMOs outweigh the risks?

The GMO salmon, modified to be grown quicker, is being reviewed by US regulators, and they have not yet reached a conclusion as to whether the benefits (advantages to the producers) outweigh risks that are somewhat uncertain. As will other genetic modifications, there does not seem to be a negative impact from human consumption. So, since this would set a precident, i.e. be the very first example, it is not surprising that regulators will take time. If I had to guess, I would say that it may take several years before we see this type of fish in Canadian stores or restaurants.

- Answer provided by Karine Morin

You have genetically modified salmon being developed out there. Have you sampled it yet?!

No I have not sampled it yet. I don't believe it's being commercially produced yet. Held up by regulatory bodies.

- Answer provided by Dr. Sean Myles

How do you go about researching the safety of GMO food or crops? Can it come up with any definitive answers?

This is handled by the regulatory systems of every country. There are rigourous protocols in place and an enormous amount of data must be generated and supplied by and to the regulatory agency to demonstrate the safety of the food.

- Answer provided by Dr. Sylvie Cloutier

How do you feel about genetically modified foods?

Further on the line that should or should not be crossed - we can't predict what people in the year 2062 will think is appropriate for genetic 'alterations' but I'd bet it will be different from today. Genetically modified foods - all i ask is that public opinion take into account, not just risks that are imagined, but risks that can be, at least to some degree, quantified. If we're thinking about feeding the world, it's hard to see how they won't play a role... remember, when it comes to food, the green revolution needed huge fossil fuel inputs, dramatically increased rerouting of fresh water for irrigation, and loads of herbicides/pesticides. We can't continue that approach.

- Answer provided by Jay Ingram

How important is the use of genetically modified food? It's changing the DNA of the plants, changing the environment, but it benefits humans however it's harming the environment.

In the US and in Canada, there is fairly widespread use of genetic modifications in certain types of plants, but in many instances, the modifications are intended to reduce the use of chemical pesticides or herbicides. So, that would represent some form of benefits to the environment. The worry is that it will come to fully replace the original "natural" environment and some consider such a change to be a negative impact... So, it is difficult to compare these different types of effects.

- Answer provided by Karine Morin

What do you think about genetically modified foods?

GMO is a quite generic term, so that irks me a bit. Sometimes the modification is enhancing something already present in the organism (e.g. for tomato shelf life), while at other times it means putting a gene from a spider into a seed. So I can't say anything categorical...it would be important to decide the merit of any modification on a case-by-case basis.

- Answer provided by Dr. Paul Gordon

What is your opinion on genetically modified food? Do you think that it is a good or bad scientific innovation?

Agricultural plants have been the result of many different types of transformation over time. As I see it, many genetic modifications so far have been intended to benefit the agricultural production, so I can understand some of the skpeticism. But, going forward, I think we may say modifications that actually are intended to have positive effects on human health, such as adding nutrients. So, like many scientific innovations, there can be good uses, or not so good uses.

- Answer provided by Karine Morin

what is your opinion on GM foods? At what point should science draw the line?

The question should not be about the mode by which a crop is being created but about its safety. GM is neither good not bad. It is one way to develop food products, certainly not the only way. What is important is to ensure food safety.

- Answer provided by Dr. Sylvie Cloutier

Why would giving starving children genetically engineered foods to help their nutrition (such as golden rice) be controversial?

I can't speak for all those who don't like the idea, but I think it's not so much golden rice itself, but the idea of messing with nature generally. Some would see that whole idea of a technological fix, where it would be (in their minds) more beneficial to deal with issues of food distribution, non-profits instead of mega-corporations etc.

- Answer provided by Jay Ingram

Why are genetically modified foods not required to be labeled?

There is a lot of discussion here in Canada and elsewhere to require food labeling but there are two broad reasons why some oppose such a requirement: first, there is no scientific evidence that these modifications affect health. So, to simplify the argument,some wonder why place information on the labels that don't speak to a health effect. Another broad reason is that in many foods, there is such a blend of ingredients that it can be difficult to know the exact source or origin of each, and onerous. The counterargument, in favor of labeling that some ingredients or foods have been developed through genetic modification is to be transparent about the whole food production process and give consumers choice.

- Answer provided by Karine Morin

Do you have any thoughts regarding genetic modifications affecting the appearance of a cut apple's flesh like the Arctic(R) Apple? Do you envision any changes in the amount of food waste as a result of a focus on using genetic modification to "extend" the appearance of perishable food?

It's quite possible that widespread adoption of the Arctic apple could result in reductions in food waste. What is particularly exciting is the prospect of future apple varieties bred to be resistant to diseases for which we now spray enormous amounts of chemicals to ward off. Non-browning is a trait of commercial importance, but the focus in the future will clearly be on reducing chemical input by developing varieties with disease resistance.

- Answer provided by Dr. Sean Myles

Are GMO foods safe for people to eat? If someone eats GMO foods, what are possible negative side effects?

There is no evidence that GMO foods are unsafe to eat. There is broad scientific consensus that foods bred using transgenic technologies are just as safe as any other food item. So, there are no known negative side effects to consuming GMOs.

- Answer provided by Dr. Sean Myles

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