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A blow to the breadbasket?

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The debate over genetically engineered foods is just getting started

Sitting on the fence in the middle of the prairies gives you just enough height to detect the curvature of the earth. The prairies of Canada grow the country’s leading agricultural export, wheat. Recent pressure from the biotechnology sector to introduce genetically modified wheat seeds is causing a ripple of concern across the country as well as the international community.

Genetically engineered foods, also called genetically modified foods, have become the subject of an increasingly polarized debate. Are they safe for consumption? Will their production damage the environment? Will they save small, family run farms from the brink of extinction? Will they help to feed the starving millions in the Third World?

Depending on which organization or corporation you refer these questions to, the answers will be distinctly different, most likely using strong language for manipulative leverage. The tug of war between industry, looking towards profit, and environmentalism, with an eye towards sustainability, is stretching the scientific rope that connects them. So what is the average person, sitting on the fence, supposed to decide about the use or ban of GE foods?

Currently, Monsanto Canada is seeking approval for unrestricted environmental release of Roundup Ready wheat. This has started the ringing of global alarm bells. Canada has consistently produced the world’s highest quality wheat, which is sold on the export market to the tune of $3 billion a year. Wheat is, second only to rice, one of the world’s main food staples. The outcry against the release of GE wheat has prompted the Canadian Wheat Board to conduct an independent review of the risks associated with the release of GE wheat into open fields. The independent review is necessary as the regulatory board, comprised of Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, may have conflicting interests – the CFIA is a division of Agri-food and Agriculture Canada which is a co-sponsor of Monsanto’s GE wheat. The results of the study, which can be read at the Wheat Board’s Web site, www. cwb.ca, warned that the unrestricted release of GE wheat "would pose an unacceptable level of environmental risk" by limiting farmers’ ability to conserve natural resources on farms in Western Canada.

GM technology has been around for several decades already. In fact the technology was originally accepted and lauded for its production of pharmaceuticals like insulin, growth hormone and Factor VIII, a blood clotting agent used by haemophiliacs. Not surprisingly, pharmaceutical companies holding the patents governing such technologies are profiting from sales.

When the same technologies are used in large scale agricultural food production, and biotech giants like Monsanto are culling equally large profits, suspicions are aroused. After all, diabetics need insulin for survival but giant corporations forcing consumers to eat "frankenfood" can’t be ethical, can it?

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