This past month, Café Scientifique, an event hosted at the Rivoli on Queen Street, welcomed three specialists in the field of agriculture to discuss the pros and cons of various kinds of food. The talk was entitled “Local, Organic, Sustainable, or Genetically Modified: Does it matter what we eat?” The panellists took a broad approach, and focused on how different kinds of foods are a beneficial or detrimental to agriculture, the economy, and society.

Fiona Yeudall, Associate Professor at Ryerson’s Centre for Studies in Food Security, began by briefly outlining the differences between genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and sustainable agriculture. Pest resistance can be bred into GMO food, increasing the amount produced while potentially harming agriculture in other ways.

Sustainability, according to Yeudall, varies by location, with greater health risks in food production as you move up the food chain.

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It is better for a country to strategically import food: if another country’s arable land is better able to produce a certain kind of food (a food of maximal quality) it is more economically efficient to import from this country as opposed to growing the food locally, which is why 70% of Canada’s food currently comes from foreign countries. Therefore, local food is not necessarily of better quality just because it is local: the quality of a particular food depends on many factors, including adequate environmental conditions for production.

However, according to final speaker Kelly Bronson, a York University PhD student in Communication and Culture, we actually have more than enough food: the issue is that this food is not properly distributed. Bronson continued that food is only cheap if you define it narrowly. Food production has many hidden costs because labour regulations are relaxed, and food is conceptualized as a commodity. Furthermore, importing food has social costs, including the destruction of farming in rural Canada with 33% of producers leaving the farm industry because they can’t compete with international producers. Biotech corporations, which produce GMOs for use in agriculture, have taken over the food industry, buying out the seed. As a result, GMOs have become widespread, pushing biotech profits into the hundreds of millions.

Many farmers also end up producing GMOs without planning on doing so, due to seed drift. These farmers have been held liable for patent infringement because they did not pay for the seed; after being sued by the corporations, many farmers become bankrupt. Bronson’s final message was: “whoever controls the seed controls the food supply.”

After each panellist spoke, the floor was opened to questions from the audience. One individual’s concern about the cheapness and availability of junk food led the panellists to mention that bad food is able to proliferate because it is heavily subsidized. As a result, the profit margins are staggering.

In response to a general question about organic food, Yeudall mentioned that we don’t have a national food policy in Canada, so we have no idea whether or not a product is organic even if a company claims as such.

The most important point made at this panel discussion is that we are headed toward a GMO-based economy, whether we like it or not. Whoever controls the seed controls the industry, and it just so happens that the biotechnology corporations responsible for producing genetically-modified foods are buying up most of the seed.