The only way consumers can protect their families and avoid potentially harmful so-called Frankenfoods is to buy directly from the grower, says a leading plant scientist.
"The important thing in local communities is know the producer," Arpad Pusztai told a crowd of about 30 people gathered to hear him speak about genetically modified food at the Niagara Artists' Centre on St. Paul Street in St. Catharines Saturday afternoon.
"You have to know where your food is coming from."
There is widespread debate about the safety of food that is genetically modified food to improve such things as insect resistance or boost desired nutrients.
Pusztai, a leading plant expert, was dismissed from the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen Scotland after he went public with research on genetically modified potatoes in 1998.
The Hungarianborn biologist's contentious research on rats found these potatoes caused several health problems, including a weakened immune system and abnormal growth.
His whistleblowing was largely responsible for sparking debate in the United Kingdom over genetically altered foods, which are most commonly soy beans, corn and potatoes.
Pusztai said virtually all testing done on GM products is being done by the biotechnological farm companies that are making the goods, and are not neutral. While these companies maintain GM products are safe, the results are never released, Pusztai said.
"They're keeping the public in the dark," said Pusztai, who was on a speaking tour of southern Ontario.
The technology to test the safety of GM products before they go to market exists, but it's not being used, said Pusztai, who divides his time between Scotland and Hungary.
Scientists like Pusztai who do independent research on the topic tend to be widely vilified by the biotechnology industry, he said.
Several scientists have dismissed Pusztai's research as poorly done, muddled and even fabricated.
But Pusztai stands by his work and said he initially set out to prove genetically modified potatoes were a great idea.
Instead, he said he found the altered potatoes hurt the guts of test rats, and caused several other side effects, such as stunted growth.
Countries that belong to the European Union are required to label if a product contains genetically modified ingredients. The same is not true in North America.
Pusztai told the crowd that people have to lobby government to ask for independent risk assessments of GM foods and for labelling.
"We have to decide ourselves what is needed, allowed and permissible and whether (genetically engineered) crops are needed at all."
The lecture was hosted by the Niagara Artists Centre and the Breast Cancer Research and Education Fund.
"We are intricately connected to our environment, and what we eat has such an immediate physical impact on our relative health, however, the consumption of (genetically modified) foods has the potential to cause devastating harm to our children's children," Karin Perry, executive director of the Breast Cancer Research and Education Fund, said in an interview.
"It is important to expose those dubious corporate/agri relationships but also provide hopeful solutions at the local level."
Susan Bardocz, a professor of nutrition at the Agricultural Faculty of the University of Debrecen in Hungary, also addressed the crowd.