Paul Marck, a reader in Kelowna, B.C., asks “The non-browning Arctic Apple is now approved for sale in Canada. Is there any science suggesting GMO foods pose risk to human health or envrionmental risks? And is there a risk they will contaminate non-GMO fruits?” The Globe’s Dave McGinn responds:
The Arctic apple, engineered to be non-browning, became the latest genetically modified food to be approved by Health Canada this week. We’ll likely start seeing it in stores in 2017, according to Neal Carter, founder of Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc., the British Columbia-based company that created the apple.
While there are a small number of scientific studies suggesting that these foods pose risks to human health and the environment, the overwhelming scientific consensus is that they are as safe as any other conventional food. Health Canada, the World Health Organization, the U.S. Academy of Sciences and the American Medical Association all endorse that view.
GMO crops have been part of our lives for more than two decades. The first such crop was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1994.
They have proliferated ever since. More than 120 genetically modified foods have been approved for sale in Canada. These range from insect resistant soy to virus resistant squash. (The complete list of “Novel Foods” approved by Health Canada can be found here.)
In explaining its approval of the Arctic apple, Health Canada provided this statement: “A gene was introduced into the Arctic apple that results in reduction in the levels of enzymes that make apples turn brown when sliced. In every other way, the Arctic apple tree and its fruits are identical to any other apple.”
The statement goes on to say that a thorough review was conducted by scientists with expertise in molecular biology, microbiology, toxicology, chemistry and nutrition.
“Following this assessment, it was determined that the changes made to the apple did not pose a greater risk to human health than apples currently available on the Canadian market,” it said. “In addition, Health Canada also concluded that the Arctic apple would have no impact on allergies, and that there are no differences in the nutritional value of the Arctic apple compared to other traditional apple varieties available for consumption.”
While there are a small number of studies that have suggested GMO foods do pose health risks, including linking GM corn to cancer in rats, or that DNA from GM crops can be transferred to humans who eat them, most of these studies have either been retracted, published in non-peer reviewed journals or questioned by independent scientists.
Meanwhile, there are more than 2, 000 studies that have concluded GMO foods pose no greater health risk than convention or organic foods.
“In order to maintain the position that GMOs are not adequately tested, or that they are harmful or risky, you have to either highly selectively cherry pick a few outliers of low scientific quality, or you have to simply deny the science,” Steven Novella, an assistant professor at the Yale University school of medicine, has written.
However, there is evidence to suggest that genes from GMO crops can migrate to non-GMO crops, as noted by the World Health Organization. (The WHO and other organizations refer to this as “outcrossing,” rather than the loaded term “contaminate.”) Separating GM crops from conventional crops is one way to address this problem.
Many people who oppose genetically modified food, including David Suzuki, argue that we still do not know their long term health effects. After all, these foods have only been part of our diet since 1994.
By its very nature, this is objection is difficult if not impossible to address without getting caught in an unproductive line of reasoning: Thousands of studies say these foods don’t pose a health risk, but on a long enough timeline they just might. Okay, but thousands of studies say they’re fine.
One way out of this is to label GMO foods. That way, supporters of labelling argue, those who are skeptical or simply don’t wish to consume GMOs would be able to exercise choice at the grocery store. Suzuki has called this a “basic right to choice.”
More than 60 countries currently require such labelling – and Canada is not one of them. Why? The government has said it does not mandate labelling because there are no known health risks to eating GM foods.
Do consumers nevertheless deserve labels in order to make informed decisions? That is a whole other question.