Does science belong on your plate?
Kevin Folta and Nancy Ames think so, as did their sold-out audience at a Canola Connect event last week at the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods & Nutraceuticals.
“Humans have been engineering plants for a long time, we have abilities to do some really good stuff — grow more food in the same space with fewer inputs,” said Folta, head of horticultural sciences at the University of Florida and a longtime advocate for transgenic technology, “what is commonly referred to as GMO technology.”
Ames, a cereal research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, focused on some of the technology that goes into processing food to ensure nutritional components maintain their integrity during processing and cooking.
“Who would think there is so much science in oatmeal?” Ames said, relating the multiple steps needed to process oats, including heat treatments that kill potentially harmful bacteria and other agents.
“But after they go through that process they are still an oat… in this case we like to think of processing making oats better,” she said.
Science also helps food processors and farmers better meet the needs of specific consumers, whether it’s infants, teenagers on the go, or older consumers looking for specific tastes and textures, the researcher said.
But it’s crops that make use of transgenic technology — generally referred to as genetically modified — that is the big hot-button issue with consumers today, Folta said, adding he believes many consumers fear this technology because they’ve been misinformed.
Citing quasi-celebrities like Dr. Oz and The Food Babe, Folta said the public has been led away from science — science he said is safe and beneficial.
“So who should be steering the progress for the next generation, should we be voting on whether science is true, or should consumers who are scared by fearmongering be telling us what we would be growing?” he asked. “Shouldn’t science and reason really be dictating public policy?
“We live in a time when we really do have access to the best food in human history, the safest food, the most abundant food and rather than embracing it we’re allowing people to scare each other about it,” he added.
Public opinion and opposition have held back several new technologies, he said, including Golden Rice, which is engineered to combat vitamin A deficiency.
“It’s really an atrocity that we can’t use this kind of technology to help people,” Folta said. “We have a lot of solutions that are ready to go, but we have activists and scientific illiteracy that are really blocking those solutions.”
Allergen-free peanuts are another example of a food that exists, but outside of the commercial realm. Apples that don’t brown when exposed to air are also a possibility.
No one in the sold-out crowd disagreed with either Folta or Ames following the presentation, which was hosted and promoted by the Manitoba Canola Growers.
The presentation did not cover economic issues around biotechnology, such as ownership and intellectual property rights, but following his talk Folta commented that farmers are the ones who consume the technology and without their endorsement, it couldn’t exist.
“The farmer is the consumer and the farmer is the one who has to be satisfied with that technology, so they service the farmer,” he said. “So this isn’t taking anything away from the farmer, it’s actually giving the farmer more options.”
He added that it’s always a concern if too much power is sequestered in one set of hands, not just in agriculture. But he said that if regulations around transgenics were loosened more competition would arise.
“That’s the way to do it, make it more hospitable for the little guy,” Folta said.