Western University residence and campus eateries offer vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free and Halal options, but not non-GMO. Chances are that if you're eating something on campus, it may have been genetically engineered.

GMOs are hyped up as the world's solution to famine, but they're also sheathed in controversy. It can be tough to wade through the heaps of scientific literature, legislation and misleading information surrounding GMOs, so here is the topic of GMOs broken down into bite-sized chunks.

GMOs explained

The term “Genetically Modified Organisms” is a misnomer because it’s an umbrella term that encompasses manipulation of genetic material in general, whether it be through genetic engineering or traditional breeding techniques. Much of the produce consumed today is genetically modified through hundreds of years of selective breeding (yes, even organic kale salad is genetically modified wild mustard plant). 

Products are defined by the National Standard of Canada as "genetically engineered" only if their genetic material was modified through transgenic methods such as recombinant DNA techniques. 

The motivation behind genetically engineered (GE) food is to introduce genes into organisms that result in beneficial traits, like the ability to grow during drought or a resistance to pesticides. There is huge potential to change the global food supply through genetic engineering.

"We're talking about a necessity to be very flexible in producing crops that can sustain changing environments and unequal distribution of food,” says Vojislava Grbic, an associate professor of biology at Western University. “We’re experiencing hunger in a substantial part of the world.”

Concerns with GMOs

Most people are concerned about potentially negative health effects because the idea of genetically modified food seems foreign and gross.

“It’s not as mad scientist-y as a lot of people think it is, but there’s not a lot of public education on it,” says Cory Soininen, a fourth-year genetics student. “It’s really hard to determine on the internet what’s true and what’s not true.”

There is currently no scientific evidence attributing GE food consumption to health risks. In their report analyzing existing scientific literature, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that GE crops do not have a higher health risk compared to their non-GE counterparts. However, the NAS also noted that better methods exist to test differences between GE and non-GE crops, if there are any differences at all.

The ecological effects of GE crops are less conclusive, since there is a lack of long-term studies and conclusive experiments. Wayne Myrvold, professor of philosophy at Western, believes questions about the ecological effects of any novel crop, whether they are GE or not, should be addressed. 

The bottom line

"You should be aware that there are people with visceral reactions, who might be raising unfounded concerns," says Myrvold. "And you should be aware that there are very serious people who are raising serious concerns, and those people are, for the most part, saying the scientific evidence isn't totally unambiguous on whether there are negative ecological effects.”

Almost all the canola and corn grown in Canada is already genetically engineered, and the sale of GE salmon was approved by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Health Canada last year. The labelling of GE products in Canada is voluntary, and the only way to completely avoid GE food is to eat products that are certified as organic. That’s particularly difficult to do at Western, since the labelling of food focuses on if it's local, not organic.

The ethical implications of labelling GE foods have yet to be resolved, but genetic engineering itself is technology with significant applications in agriculture and medicine — technology that is currently being used in Western's research. Specific health or ecological concerns about GE foods should not be rooted in criticism of the science itself. 

"GMOs are here to stay," Grbic says. "So I think maybe discussion should be around, first, education, and then if there are some concerns, these concerns should be discussed rather than dismissing the whole technology as being dangerous or not being beneficial in any way."


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