In the News: Marc Fortin

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Home > McGill News > 2003 > Summer 2003 > In the News: Marc Fortin

In the News: Marc Fortin

Food Fight: The Debate on Genetically Modified Organisms

Marc Fortin, PhD'87, chair of the Department of Plant Science at Macdonald Campus, is a respected molecular biologist who studies the interaction between plants and the viruses that prey on them. In 2001, he was a member of the Expert Panel on the Future of Food Biotechnology set up by the Royal Society of Canada. We asked him who's doing what to our food.

What exactly are genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and how do they relate to our food supply?

GMOs have emerged on the market because seed producers believe that they can make new crops faster using recombinant DNA technology, compared to conventional breeding.

What is recombinant DNA?

It's DNA that's been constructed in a lab from various sources; it can be from one species to another or from the same species. In the latter case, a gene with a specific function could be modified to disable it, or to increase its production in the plant, to make more of a certain desired quality.

Genetic engineers felt that if we know which gene controls which trait in a plant, then we can move that trait around easier and faster. In retrospect, it's not a whole lot faster, but it has been successful. What it has done is provide what consumers want -- a cheaper food supply. In developed countries, we're spending less of our income on food than ever before.

If it's a success, then why the suspicion about genetically modified (GM) food?

A hundred years ago, 80% of the population lived in rural areas; today it's 20%. Most people are not in touch with how food is produced. So that makes them feel alienated, and they feel further alienated when some big corporation comes in and says, 'We will change the genetic makeup of the food.' People don't know what a genetic modification is, or the impact it might have. To some extent, neither do scientists. We don't have a whole lot of scientific data to support claims that there are no deleterious effects. This alienation translates into mistrust, justified or not.

You said so far the result has been cheaper food. What about qualities like disease resistance?

There are very, very few disease-resistant plants. Close to 90% of the GM plants on the market are herbicide resistant, which allows farmers to kill all the weeds in the field, except the crop.

Should we be worried about GM food?

We have a history of safe use now for seven years. That's not very long term, but there is no scientific data that suggests harmful effects for the environment or for human health. However, that's for the plants that we have on the market at the moment, which contain very simple genetic modifications: the introduction of a single trait, the ability to resist herbicides.

People are working on more complex genetic modifications that will alter nutrient content. If you start changing the biochemistry or the metabolic pathways of a plant, what impact will that have on human nutrition? Will that somehow throw the nutrient content of our diet off balance? Will it lead to harmful effects? I'm not hypothesizing that there will be harmful effects, but the question is, how do you test food for safety? This is not trivial.

What percentage of the food being grown and consumed in North America is GM food?

We don't know; there is no way of accounting for what we eat in Canada. What we do know is that more than half of the canola grown in Canada is genetically modified, as well as 35% of the soybeans and 40% of the corn. We don't know how much goes for animal feed and how much for human consumption.

So how can we tell if we're eating or buying GM food?

At the moment in Canada, labelling for genetically modified content is not allowed, because the federal government does not have a set of regulations on it. In the absence of regulation, there is no labelling, by default. Consumers clearly would like to know what's on their plates, but at the moment, they can't.

What are the advantages of these plants/foods?

The biggest advantage has been the cost of growing those crops. It will benefit the consumer in terms of lower prices for food. Down the road, companies and scientists are promising crops with health-enhancing properties. As the population ages, companies feel there's a market for these kinds of products.

How can we control the mixing of GM plants with wild plants?

That requires testing. The Europeans have put together scientifically credible protocols for testing for GM content. They have these methods in place right now, and that allows them to keep GM food separated from conventional crops. It also allows them to have a credible labelling system. Labelling is pointless in the absence of verification. Canada has not recognized any method of testing for GM content, so labelling is impossible, and we cannot ensure segregation.

The ball is in the federal government's court. There are international and scientifically rigorous methods available; all we have to do is adopt regulations for implementing these methods in Canada. It's simple.

How does your research relate to this issue?

I study the molecular genetics of plants, so I deal with genes in plants. GM plants are genetically modified to give those plants new traits, properties and characteristics. I am working on discovering genes that control the ability of plants to resist virus infection.

Will there be GM plants in the future which are genetically designed to resist diseases?

That is one area researchers are working on. They are also looking at ways of making agriculture more environmentally benign, if there can be such a thing. After all, agriculture means you are sterilizing a piece of land, allowing nothing else to grow there except what you want to grow.

What were the main findings of the 2001 Royal Society panel?

First, Canada should use the best scientific capacity available to assess the safety of new food products. Secondly, there is a need for transparency on the part of regulators; the government needs to make efforts to communicate the safety concerns surrounding these foods. Third, we need more knowledge; we must understand the impact of GM food. The panel expressed concern that there is not enough scientific rigour in the testing for food safety. There is very little data available on how modifying a metabolic pathway will impact on other metabolic pathways; on how it will change the content of the plant, in terms of nutrients, vitamins and toxic compounds. We don't understand much about this for any organism. We must plug those knowledge gaps with the best people and resources we've got.

The panel's report mentioned the use of "substantial equivalence."
What is that?

Pushed to the extreme -- and I'm trivializing a bit -- the concept means if it looks like a tomato, talks and walks like a tomato, it's a tomato. What's being done now is testing for contents -- minerals, vitamins, sugars, proteins -- which is called elemental analysis, without testing on the genetic level. So if the composition appears to be the same as a conventional tomato, therefore (the government concludes) it's safe.

The panel was promoting the concept of substantial equivalence, which means using the best scientific methods currently available to test for the absence of deleterious effects, or for indications that the content of the plant or food product has changed. We need to be able to show that the two products are not significantly different.

The report stated that the openness of the regulatory system was "negotiated exchange for the cordial and supportive relationships with the industries being regulated." Is maintaining trade secrets the reason for the lack of transparency?

That quote refers to the concept of transparency, in the sense that the regulator must be independent and must be perceived as independent, which is equally important -- if not more so. If consumers feel that something is being hidden from them, they lose confidence in the regulator. We cannot afford, as a country, to lose confidence in the food supply. We must be able to go to the grocery store, pick up an item on the shelf and think "this is safe."

So why the lack of transparency on this issue?

The federal government claimed there were intellectual property issues, that information was released to them by seed developers. If this information became public, that would compromise their rights. In the U.S., the federal register publishes a lot of that information. We don't have the equivalent of the federal register in Canada, but it's a bit odd that the U.S. releases the information, while we don't. Most of the companies involved are American, and if they don't feel threatened releasing it in the U.S., why do they feel threatened releasing it here?

Any new concerns since the panel's report?

No. In fact, for the past seven years, what we have is an ongoing experiment, in which more and more people are eating GM food, and we still have no data indicating that there are health or environmental issues. So as time goes by, scientific uncertainty is decreasing for the products on the market. However, if new products are released, with a new set of genetic modifications, then we will be back to square one in terms of unaddressed scientific questions.

Who are the people promoting GM food products?

Seed companies, mostly large inter-national companies, in part because governments have stopped subsidizing crop development research. That has left a vacuum, which companies have filled.

Are there benefits that will be lost in the controversy over safety?

The most valuable thing we can lose is confidence in the safety of our food supply and in the scientific content of this debate. It has been extremely frustrating for me to watch how the debate often ignores hard facts and scientific data, and centres instead on unsubstantiated statements and fears.

I recognize that we could choose not to adopt GM food on the basis of ethical, moral or other considerations. But if we are making that choice based on food safety, we don't have the data to support the claims of either side. Both environmental groups and the promoters of these products have made unscientific claims. Scientific rigour has been one of the biggest casualties in this whole debate.

Marc Fortin was interviewed by Montreal writer Sylvain Comeau.

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