Our food supply is ever changing. From hunting and gathering to farming our food, increasing yields has always been a challenge. Every major agricultural innovation heralds a new era of improved survival, increased life expectancy and along with that, more people. Keeping up with more people requires more innovation, which in turn means more people. Improving agricultural yields to fill today’s 7.6 billion stomachs requires unprecedented ingenuity. How will we meet the challenges of the 11 billion people projected to inhabit our shrinking blue orb by the end of this century?
From the science of genetically modified organisms (GMO) comes new species of fruits, vegetables and grains, with enriched nutrition and better defenses against pests. Adding animals to that list, last year, Canada was the first country in the world to approve a new species of salmon for consumption, which grows faster and much bigger than any before. These innovations are helping feed the hungriest regions on our planet, where we’ve become used to seeing never-ending spectacles of heart-wrenching malnutrition. But along with the science of food processing comes controversy, which has helped generate a burgeoning organic industry throughout the modern world.
Here, we can choose what we eat. If we don’t trust our sources, we can pay a premium for specialty products. We can have grass fed, grain fed, free-range, non-antibiotic, non-GMO, low fat, high fat, whatever we wish. But another major agricultural innovation is adding to our choices. It’s something called “irradiation,” already used to varying degrees in more than 60 countries, and making inroads to your local grocer.
With meat and produce recalls due to contamination, the public is growing more tolerant of irradiation. Health Canada now approves irradiation for potatoes, onions, wheat, flour, whole-wheat flour, whole and ground spices, dehydrated seasonings and, in 2016, added ground beef. The poultry industry wants to add chicken products and many more approval applications are sure to follow.
Right now, there is a choice. Labelling identifies irradiated products but with toxic pathogens entering our food supply there may come a time when it is no longer feasible for any perishable foods producer to go without irradiation. Protecting the consumer from illness and the producer from crippling litigation is something we all have to take seriously. We may have to acknowledge a waiver for the producer if we want to consume non-radiated foods.
So what is irradiation? Generally, it is a low dose of radiation that neutralizes most harmful pathogens, which prolongs the shelf life of perishable consumables. The process involves bathing the foods in ionizing radiation produced by gamma rays, high-energy electron beams or x-rays. All of the scientific data show that irradiation is safe for perishable consumables, but a misconception about radioactivity still slows its deployment. We can relax, however, since science demonstrates that the treatment does not cause radioactivity.
Proponents of irradiation tout its benefits: extended shelf life; less spoilage; less waste; reduced risk of food-borne diseases; fewer pesticides; fewer additives like preservatives and antioxidants; lower risk of insect infestation; less need for toxic chemical treatments and reduced refrigeration, which helps lower greenhouse gas emissions.
Irradiation doesn’t work for everything. Dairy products and eggs lose flavour and texture and there is a minute loss of nutrients similar to other preservative techniques, but fruits and vegetables are good candidates. It works well for meat and fish and Health Canada approved ground beef for irradiation because it is highly susceptible to pathogens.
But if you’d rather crunch deep-fried crickets than eat anything irradiated, that may well be another choice coming soon to a supermarket near you.