Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Privilege of Choice: GE Foods and Pipelines

I’ve always been a black and white sort of person. Things are either good or bad; healthy or not; right or wrong. That is until now. Well, actually, this change in perspective has been coming on for years but with recent events I’ve come to a deeper appreciation for the more grey shades of life. What I now believe is that if we are truly going to survive this mad progress we call civilized living, we need to soften our radical stances; stop being so extreme. We no longer have the capability (if we ever did) to make positive change by putting up rigid walls and being morally outraged. If we really want to make this world a better place we have to let go some of our more sacred ideals and start compromising.  

Here are two examples:

Until recently I was avidly against the construction of more oil pipelines especially those going through my own province. Then Lac Megantic happened.  Forty three people are confirmed dead with another four missing and presumed deceased. That is horrendous in itself but then you add on the 5.7 million litres of light crude spilled into the environment. How many years will it take to clean up this mess?  How many lives have been ruined, families torn apart, dreams crushed? This was caused by one train carrying petrochemicals, but are pipelines much better? 

Recent spills from both Enbridge and Keystone structures have caused considerable damage to both waterways and land. Shall we then stick to oil tankers or even trucks that can sink, leak and crash?  And what about how we extract the oil? Which is better: the Alberta oil sands or deep sea drilling? The answer, of course, is that none of these forms of transport or means to production are ideal. But the truth is we are not going to decrease our dependency on petrochemicals tomorrow; it may not even occur in the next decade. As such we have to make compromises until we, as a country, realize we cannot continue as we have been doing. Until each and every one of us starts thinking before we consume, that is, before we drive, use plastics, repave our driveway or jet away on a vacation we have a problem that cannot be solved by a well meaning protest movement.  Until we change our way of livingslow down our seemingly endless need to over consume and start demanding viable alternatives that are healthier and safer we are stuck with this problem. It is not so much an argument of which method of transport or extraction is best but how can we improve the safety of these systems so that both people and the environment are better protected. 

Then we have GE foods. (See below for the differences between GMO and GE foods). I am not a Monsanto fan. I don’t believe in creating pesticide resistant plants, apples that don’t brown or terminator seeds. And I don’t believe that sterilizing soil is ever a good idea but Monsanto isn’t the only game in town. Nevertheless, they have unfortunately become the figurehead to the genetically engineering movement and, as such, the scientific process and company name are inseparable. But they are not the same thing. Not all GE foods are created equal.

I recently read about Golden Rice. Golden Rice is a genetically engineered food that was designed to produce beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A, in the edible part of rice. It is a humanitarian project, i.e. no one profits, created to reduce Vitamin A deficiency in countries where children are not getting enough in their diet. A lack of this vitamin causes blindness and lowers the immune system. It is said that this deficiency kills an estimated 670,000 children under 5 each year in South East Asia. 

Now sure, it would be better if these children got their vitamin A from natural sources which include yams and leafy greens. But it is not happening. Through whatever cause: globalization; factory farming; corporate greed; changes in diets; and the loss of the arable land for small family plots; it doesn’t matter, we have a problem. And yes, it would be great if we could undo decisions made decades ago and return to a world where there is more crop biodiversity and less corporate ownership but it won’t happen tomorrow. It’s going to take time and in the meanwhile we may have to compromise on extreme anti-GE views and accept new products such as Golden Rice.

Last month I noticed that my local Whole Foods had an anti GMO/GE day. What a privilege.  It highlights the fact that I, and the people in my community, have choice: that I can eat a varied diet that includes ample vitamins and minerals; good fats and fibre; organic protein and carbs without relying on supplements or food grown from patented seeds. One day I hope to say the same for all families regardless of where they live and what their economic status. But it’s not going to happen tomorrow. Reorganizing the way food is grown and distributed; dismantling corporate monopolies, and subverting the idolatry of fast food takes time. Until then we have to compromise. We no longer have the right to deny others a life because we have the privilege of choice. 

GE and GMO Foods defined by the Home Garden Seed Association

GE (Genetically Engineered): 

The terms GE and GMO frequently used interchangeably in the media, but they do not mean

the same thing; it is modern Genetic Engineering that is the subject of much discussion. Genetic Engineering describes the high-tech methods used in recent decades to incorporate genes directly into an organism. The only way scientists can transfer genes between organisms that are not sexually compatible is to use recombinant DNA techniques. The plants that result do not occur in nature; they are “ genetically engineered” by human intervention and manipulation. Examples of GE crops currently grown by agribusiness include corn modified with a naturally occurring soil bacterium for protection from corn borer damage (Bt-corn), and herbicide-resistant (“Roundup Ready”) soybeans, corn, cotton, canola, and alfalfa. All of these are larger acreage, commercial crops.

GMO (Genetically Modified Organism):

The USDA defines a GMO as an organism produced through any type of genetic modification, whether by high-tech modern genetic engineering, OR long time traditional plant breeding methods…. For hundreds of years, genes have been manipulated empirically by plant breeders who monitor their effects on specific characteristics or traits of the organism to improve productivity, quality, or performance. When plant breeders, working with conventional or organically produced varieties, select for traits like uniformity or disease resistance in an open-pollinated variety or create a hybrid cross between two cultivars, they are making the same kind of selections which can also occur in nature; in; other words, they are genetically modifying organisms and this is where the term GMO actually applies. Examples of 20th century breeding work include familiar vegetables and fruits such as seedless watermelons, pluots and modern broccoli.

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