Fear Of Change

Activists have opposed improved food production from genetically modified (GM) species in spite of the substantial benefits they provide, and the lack of credible evidence that they represent a risk to health. Nevertheless, their energetic advocacy has had some success—most recently, in Nova Scotia.

Columnist Doug Saunders, in the May 21st Globe and Mail, sharply rebuked those who seek to prevent the use of any food grown using GM seeds. He gives an example in Kenya where an ill-informed but now reversed choice to ban GM seeds resulted in preventable crop losses during a drought. He concludes:

“This week, the National Academy of Sciences released a mammoth study, by a large team of respected scientists who have no agribusiness involvement, which studied 20 years of Western cultivation and consumption of GM crops. It found absolutely zero health or nutritional differences between conventional and genetically altered crops in any form of food, or any possibility of health hazards in GM-developed hybrids.”

GM seeds can provide greater yields while reducing the need for fertilizers and pesticides. Some GM foods—such as soybeans—have been part of our diets for as long as two decades, with no evidence of ill effects.

On the same day as Saunders’ article appeared, the Herald reported that: “The Canadian Food Inspection Agency on Thursday gave the green light to supermarkets to sell a type of fast-growing genetically modified salmon…” In doing so, Canada was joining the USA in confirming that the GM salmon poses no health risk to people.

Nor should it pose any threat to wild salmon populations. AquaBounty, the company that developed the salmon, plans to provide farmers with fish rather than eggs, and has proposed that they only be raised in land-based facilities. The eggs are produced in PEI.

Salmon are already much more efficient than animals or poultry in converting feed into protein, and the company claims that its fish are even more so.

In response, the Ecology Action Centre (EAC) wants supermarkets to boycott the fish. Beyond that, they and others want labelling on all products that include GM inputs. That seems illogical for a safe product.

Should growers of food not deemed to qualify as organic have to put that on their labels? Let the organic growers tell their own story. Likewise if farmers of non-GM salmon think that is important to their customers they should tell that story themselves.

The EAC and others have argued that all salmon aquaculture should be in land-based pens. The development of a faster growing fish might serve that goal by making those more cost-competitive with marine-based aquaculture.

Somewhat more surprising is the strident response of Fisheries and Aquaculture Minister Colwell: “We really don’t want any connection with the GMO salmon.” Does the Minister distrust the assurance of Justin Trudeau’s Health Canada? The department advises that “we could never say that there’s a zero risk of escape from a land-based site.” Really?

He continues “We have a system that works in the province now and that works very well, and we don’t want to interfere with something that works very well.”

Well, actually, the system does not work very well at the moment. Five years after a moratorium on new finfish operations was begun—and 16 months after the release of the final Doelle-Lahey report recommending a new regulatory regime—we still do not have a framework for the establishment of new operations.

The aquaculture industry seems to be indifferent, saying that there has not been much take-up since the GM salmon were legalized for sale in the United States.

Perhaps they are right. Or maybe this is just one of those things that takes time to become established. If experience confirms that the GM fish grow faster and at lower cost to producers, sooner or later competition from places using the technology will cause the economic imperatives to prevail.

Then Nova Scotian producers will be faced with the choice of adopting the new technology or gradually losing their market share in what should be one of our most promising industries.

Meanwhile, the Minister will have a hard time taking back his knee-jerk dismissal of the whole idea.

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