DNA Day experts answer your questions about the risks, benefits and issues with genetically modified organisms

Above: Image © ThamKC, iStockphoto.com

Do you think the average Canadian really understands many of the discussions in genetic testing, GMOs, etc ? We're so into quick answers and quick fixes.

Well I would agree that we all want quick fixes of things that are going wrong. And it's true that the time scale of developing real fixes scientifically is at odd with 'quick'. one of the issues is that most of us don't know how long it takes to do good science.

- Answer provided by Jay Ingram

Why is there such a difference in attitudes between Canada and Europe when it comes to GMO?

First, let me say that there are LOTS of books and articles that have been explaining these differences in attitudes. Again, to simplify things: Europe, and particularly the UK, have had many different bad experiences with food, and people have become more skeptical toward food producers. In the US, there is generally speaking more support for high-tech in all sectors, including agriculture and food production. You could say there are different levels of risk tolerance.

- Answer provided by Karine Morin

How long (how many years) was GMO studied for before they were approved for livestock and human consumption?

It is an important question. I don't know the answer. The fact that there is a new gene in a food does not make it less palatable, does not make it itself the food harmful. However, spread of the GMO to wild populations, especially for plants, can be damaging to the ecosystem.

- Answer provided by Dr. Richard Sparling

I was just wondering if it would be more beneficial financially and ethically to focus on farming the available land than producing GMOs. The earth has enough farmland to produce food for the entire human population however we spend billions on the research and production of the unnecessary GMOs. Why do GMO's exist then and why is it so well endorsed in North America?

Indeed - if we all cut down on food waste, became vegetarians and just suddenly all became incredibly thrifty with food, we could potentially evade a food crisis. That's not likely though. And GM is just an extension of the breeders' toolkit to make new varieties more efficiently - it's arguably more precise and safe than other methods used by breeders currently. It's also unclear what you mean by "well endorsed". GM foods undergo far more scrutiny and are far more tightly regulated than any other food, even those generated using mutation induction techniques by bombarding food with radiation, which induces thousands of mutations of unknown function. GM is just another tool we can use to achieve sustainability - it's just as "necessary" as any other breeding technique.

- Answer provided by Dr. Sean Myles

What are the benefits and risks of GMOs? Why do GMO's have such a bad reputation?

The early GMO crops benefited mostly farmers because the GMO traits were related to agronomy. Now we see GMO rice with added vitamin A preventing blindness in population where rice is a staple. About the risks, we need to continue to have a system to ensure food safety. About the bad reputation, I think it comes from perception rather than science or knowledge.

- 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

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