Asking the right question

I believe the article “Are GMOs safe?” (Engineering Dimensions, May/June 2018) asks the wrong question. A more pertinent question would be: Does the value to society of a given GMO justify its approval for use?

The piece takes the approach of describing concerns about GMOs, then countering those with assurances from Health Canada or GMO proponents that they have all the proper regulations and procedures in place.

What has happened to the principle of precaution, which is fundamental to public health policy? The absence of “published scientific evidence demonstrating novel foods are any less safe than traditional foods” must never be taken as proof that they are actually safe! This is especially true when Health Canada relies heavily on research conducted by the manufacturers for their data.

When dealing with public health, a substance must be proven to be both useful and safe before it can be approved. Although GMOs introduced to date may well be safe (lacking data to the contrary), and some have the potential to be valuable to society, it is clear the principal beneficiaries of the introduction of many GMOs have been their manufacturers. For example, seeds that rely on a specific herbicide for their success have proven immensely profitable for their manufacturers, of questionable value to farmers and no benefit whatsoever to consumers or society at large.

Now that Japan and South Korea have banned Canadian wheat because of the presence of some stray GMO plants appearing unexpectedly in non-GMO fields, will the seed vendor compensate farmers and the Canadian economy for the expected loss of several hundred million dollars per year? Sadly, this seems extremely unlikely.

If a GMO is developed that has overwhelmingly powerful benefits for the well-being of humanity, we may decide as a society to approve its use, even if we don’t have long-term research to convincingly prove its innocuousness. Until there is such a superior product that is ready for commercial deployment, we must set a much higher standard for approval. The fact that a substance doesn’t appear dangerous is simply not sufficient.

Robert FitzGerald, P.Eng., Ottawa, ON