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GMO expert voices concerns about engineered foods

Ecology Action Centre
Ecology Action Centre

s it safe to eat genetically engineered salmon, apples or potatoes?

The Ecology Action Centre and the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network are hosting an international expert in genetically modified organisms at talks in Halifax, Truro and Charlottetown this week to try to answer that question and others.

Lucy Sharratt, a co-ordinator with the biotechnology network, said genetically engineered salmon is already available to Canadian consumers, and genetically modified apples and potatoes have been approved in Canada but aren’t yet on the market.

Organizers are generally opposed to the use of genetic engineering in food, she said, but the bigger problem is that Canadian and international regulations often don’t require foods to be labelled as genetically modified and the science behind the approvals is mostly confidential industry information.

Dr. Ricarda Steinbrecher, a biologist and molecular geneticist based in the United Kingdom, has worked on genetically modifiedorganisms (GMOs), their risks and impacts on agriculture, environment and health

since 1995. She is scheduled for several talks on the scientific and ethical issues around GMOs, said Sharratt.

The public is invited to the talks, said Sharratt, and a scientific background won’t be needed to understand and participate.

“We’re so excited to have Dr. Steinbrecher come and speak because we want to have a discussion about the potential of the science and how, as a society, we should introduce new technology, and that involves public engagement and it involves good government regulation, and if we have new technologies in front of us, let’s look at them together,” she said.“This is the great thing about Dr. Steinbrecher. It is an examination of the science itself behind the technology, but she is able to describe it so that it’s very accessible.”

Sharratt said the science behind genetically modified foods might be sound, but the public has no way of knowing.

And if GMOs aren’t labelled, polls show that Canadians will buy less of one type of food if they know some of it has been genetically modified, she said.

For example, said Sharratt, a variety of apple has been approved in Canada

that has been genetically modified to not turn brown after it is bitten or sliced. If that product is sent to market and it’s not labelled, survey data shows people are likely to buy fewer apples to avoid eating a GMO, she said, and that could have an economic impact on growers everywhere, including the Maritimes.

Salmon eggs genetically modified in Prince Edward Island are being raised elsewhere and the fish are coming back into the Canadian consumer market now, Sharratt said, but there are plans to build a GMO salmon farm in P.E.I., leading to “grave” concerns about them mixing with native fish populations.

Steinbrecher “will describe the technologies, and it is an accessible and riveting description of how the new technologies are creating new foods, or could create new foods, and where the risk questions come from,” Sharratt said.

A talk was given in Halifax Monday and talks are scheduled for 2:30 and 4 p.m. Tuesday at the Best Western Glengarry hotel in Truro. Steinbrecher will also speak Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the Grafton Room at the Rodd Charlottetown hotel.

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