Ontario Agri-Food Technologies – FAQs

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Will biotechnology eliminate traditional breeding methods?

No. When biotechnology is used to improve the quality of crop plants, it is just one tool in the breeder’s bag of tricks. Biotechnology does not alleviate the need for traditional methods of breeding new plant varieties.

Similarly, it is also just a tool for the growers of these crops. It does not reduce the need for good farm management and an integrated system is still an essential component of effective crop production.

Can you be 100% certain that GM foods are safe?

Scientists hate certainty and it is this that makes them appear equivocal about the safety of plant biotechnology. You will find that scientists rarely write in their scientific publications such statements as: “these results prove our theory is correct”, they are more likely to say “our results are consistent with our theory” or our results suggest our theory might be correct”. The media, however, want certainty and a guarantee that biotechnology is 100% safe.

In their research, scientists like to put a value on their confidence in the results. We often work with a confidence level of 95%, the nineteen times out of twenty of the pollsters. If our results are very good we may try for 99% confidence level but I have never seen a 100% confidence level. It would be impossible to attain especially in biology. Hence, the apparent equivocation about the safety of biotechnology.

To place it in another context, I personally have no concern about eating GM foods and have done so knowingly over an extended period of time. I believe they have been well tested and are safe. I am, in fact, more concerned about many traditional foods since I have no doubt that food contamination is a far greater risk than GM foods. Recently, many people were made seriously ill after eating raspberries that were contaminated with bacteria. Food poisoning is still a major problem and it has been suggested that many cases of what is described as stomach flue is, in reality, food poisoning. No food would ever be approved for consumption if it had to be proved to be 100% safe; it simply cannot be done.

Seeds and nuts are a special problem since molds growing on them can be very toxic. This is especially true for peanuts which invariably contain a deadly poison called aflatoxin made by the mold, Aspergillus flavus. In commercially produced peanut butter, the level of aflatoxin is monitored and kept at an acceptable level but there is no assurance of what the level might be in “homemade” peanut butter. Foods that are eaten without being cooked, such as fruits and vegetables are also a major concern since there is often no control over the way in which the food is handled between the growing plant and the place of sale. This is especially true for salad components such as bean sprouts which are grown under ideal conditions for bacteria and molds to flourish.

The safest food is to be found in modern well-run supermarkets where fresh clean food is available. The staff are trained to handle food correctly and there is a fast cycling of food on the shelves with old food being discarded.

It all comes down to a matter of risk and benefits. What are the risks of GM foods as compared with traditional foods? It is necessary to evaluate the risks and determine if the benefits of the technology are worthwhile. In the case of transgenic crops the benefits are great and the risks small.

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