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This article was published 23/10/2014 (2119 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
THIS week, Winnipeg was the theatre of engagement for a brief foray in the battle for hearts and minds regarding genetically modified foods.
Kevin Folta, chairman of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida, is an outspoken advocate for the safety of and humanitarian benefits that are possible from genetically modified organisms.
He maintains concerns about GMOs are based on misinformation and fear, and the consequences of holding back their broad dissemination are immense.
"In 17 years of use, there has not been one single health consequence related to these products," Folta said. "There is no reason to even think there might be, because we understand these genes and how these traits work" better than scientists understand other plant breeding.
He said scientists understand and are able to control GMOs -- for instance, such as the addition of one gene in canola that allows farmers to use low-impact herbicide to control weeds and retain topsoil -- in a much more precise way than they can when they cross two plants together to create seedless fruits and vegetables, for instance.
But for some reason, the general population has no problem with that kind of haphazard crossbreeding.
"It (genetically modified plant technologies) is incredibly safe," he said. "These are the best-tested plants on the planet."
Folta was in Winnipeg to speak to a conference being held by the Science Teachers of Manitoba. He also gave a presentation at the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals hosted by the Manitoba Canola Growers.
He said scientists are incredibly supportive of the technology, but are not necessarily capable of or well-suited to advocating in a way that can change public opinion.
"Scientists' advocacy is very important, but not that many scientists are actively engaging the public," he said. "It is something that is a hot-button issue in public discourse right now, but few scientists are getting out there. It is difficult and dangerous."
He said the reason the European Union does not approve new crops to be grown, for instance, is mostly a cultural and political one.
He likens that inertia and resistance to change, for instance, to that which prevents the U.S. from adopting the metric system.
But GMOs represent potentially game-changing biotechnology developments that could have a significant impact on nutrition, environmental sustainability and global economics.
And there is much more yet to come.
Much of the corn, soy and cotton grown now in the Americas is genetically modified.
Canola is perhaps the most significant GMO crop in this region.
Canola oil is already very healthy, but Folta said scientists can make it even healthier with a simple modification to enhance the omega-6 fatty acid that is associated with heart health.
"That kind of oil is currently only available from fish," Folta said. "With a simple modification, we can switch the traditionally present oil to the more healthful oil. It's estimated that one acre of this enhanced canola could save up to 10,000 fish. That could be a huge impact for canola growers and a huge impact for aquaculture."
Folta says he has no connections to the large food science companies such as Monsanto that commercially develop GMO seeds and maintains his role as a public scientist who speaks out on his own behalf. (He said he has his costs covered but receives no fees for his public presentations.)
Meanwhile he understands public attitudes will not change quickly.
"For the near term, fear and misinformation is winning," he said. "But eventually it will swing back the other way."
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.
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