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The case for caution
Before any new drug is introduced on the market, it has to run an obstacle course of tests and studies designed to determine if there are any harmful side effects associated with it.
PHOTO: Owen Egan
Professor Marc Fortin believes that genetically modified foods should have to go through a similarly tough process before they make their way into our refrigerators and pantries.
Fortin, the chair of the Department of Plant Science and a respected molecular biologist, was a member of the Royal Society of Canada's Expert Panel on the Future of Food Biotechnology.
The group was put together at the federal government's request in order to examine all the scientific and regulatory issues related to genetically modified (GM) food. Earlier this month, after over a year of deliberation, the panel released its report.
The report's title, "Elements of Precaution," pretty much sums up the nature of the panel's recommendations, says Fortin.
"We believe the government needs to be cautious in approaching the products of new technologies. We want to see testing mechanisms in place that meet the highest scientific standards.
"The absence of evidence of harmful side-effects [associated with GM products] is not enough," says Fortin. "We need to have evidence of the absence of harmful side-effects."
Some of the panel's recommendations, for instance, relate to the widely used concept of "substantial equivalence," some food product has only been modified in a very subtle way, it is generally regarded to be essentially the same food as its precursor.
The panel advises regulators to largely abandon this approach. It calls for "rigorous scientific assessment of [GM products'] potential for causing harm to the environment or to human health" to "replace the current regulatory reliance on 'substantial equivalence' as a decision threshold."
The panel also raises concerns about the level of secrecy surrounding the testing of new GM foods and calls on the government to ensure that external reviews of GM product approvals become common. The panel also believes that the data coming out of these tests should be made more readily available to the public.
"Canada is not unique in facing these challenges," says Fortin. Europeans are becoming increasingly cautious about GM products while the official American position, for the moment anyway, is largely "if it looks like a tomato, it's a tomato."
Fortin notes that health minister Allan Rock recently discussed the panel's report in the House of Commons, expressing his satisfaction that the panel had found no conclusive evidence of any health-related concerns connected to GM products already being sold.
"In fact, what we said was that we don't know enough to say anything conclusively." Which to Fortin's mind is no way to run a regulatory process for things that people ingest.
"There don't appear to be any harmful effects associated with the foods that are already available, but we believe that the testing should be done before we put something out on the market.
"Where there is uncertainty, the government is responsible for protecting the public's welfare. And in the face of uncertainty, what scientists do is to seek out answers. We do the research."
Which leads to another area of concern for the panel. There isn't enough independent research on the safety of food biotechnology currently going on in Canada.
"We have some concern there," says Fortin. "University labs across Canada receive, on average, about $37,000 in funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council." Such sums often aren't enough given the increasing costs associated with scientific research.
"Clearly, in that context, researchers will be interested in working with private sector partners." But such partnerships steer university research towards commercial interests "and that erodes our ability to do independent research in Canada."
Fortin notes that some media coverage alleged that the panel's recommendations "would kill the biotechnology industry in Canada." He thinks that's nonsense. In a nutshell, he believes that GM products should be treated roughly the same as pharmaceutical products. And the drug industry seems to be doing just fine.
"Basically, if you look at GM foods, we're at year zero in terms of what goes on in the pharmaceutical industry. There is a whole segment of that industry that has as its sole purpose the testing of new drugs."
When it comes to GM products, "we don't have that sort of industry, we don't have the testing protocols in place, and we don't have the scientists to do those tests. We have to develop that system and we have to do it now."
To examine the report of the Royal Society's Expert Panel on the Future of Food Biotechnology, you can find a PDF version here.