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The great debate of our lives

I plant GMO crops, but I’m alarmed at how little we listen to the concerns of the anti-GMO lobby. The risk is huge

The biggest threat to farming as we know it in North America isn’t low commodity prices, high input costs or the lack of skilled labour. It isn’t even climate change. Instead, our worst threat is the growing perception that the food we produce is not safe.

This fall, the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) released its new Ipsos Reid poll showing 59 per cent of Canadians oppose using genetically modified crops or animals to produce food, 48 per cent support a ban on all genetically modified food, and 88 per cent want mandatory labelling of GM foods.

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Of those who said they want all GM foods labelled, 55 per cent are concerned about food safety, 58 per cent are concerned that not enough research has been done on the long-term health and environmental impacts, and 57 per cent are not confident in the government’s safety and regulatory systems for genetically modified foods.

“Consumers have lost trust in food safety,” says Lucy Sharratt, co-ordinator of CBAN.

Meanwhile, confronted by an audience that doesn’t believe their food is safe, Sharratt says our government and industry have been saying GMOs don’t need to be labelled because they ARE safe.

Before any more GMO crops are commercialized, Sharratt says, there must be labelling of food, and there must also be an evaluation of the first 20 years of GMOs in Canada, plus more transparency and more discussion by producers, consumers, government and industry.

Rachel Parent is a Toronto-area high school student. She is also becoming the face and voice of the anti-GMO movement in Canada. Her opposition to GMO grew out of a school project when she was just 12 years old. Since then she has been interviewed many times on radio, television and online media. She has started her own foundation “KidsRightToKnow” which focuses on food safety issues.

Parent speaks at rallies and events, but she is best known for challenging CBC’s Kevin O’Leary to a debate on GMOs and food safety. That debate was posted to YouTube and viewed two million times in two months.

Parent’s primary goal is mandatory labelling of all foods containing GMOs. While I was unable to talk with Parent, she did answer my questions via email (see at bottom).

The anti-GMO push is not limited to young consumers, however. Dr. Thierry Vrain, retired from the position of head of biotechnology at Agriculture Canada’s Summerland Research Station warns of pesticide-resistance problems, genetic contamination of non-GMO crops, genetic pollution of the environment, and the possibility of health problems due to allergens and toxic proteins arising from GMO technology.

“There may or may not be a concern with GMOs,” says Vrain. “We just don’t have the science.”

Farmers question GMOs

Even some farmers are opposed to GMO technology. One of the most outspoken is Joel Salatin, the owner of Polyface Farm of Staunton, Virginia. Besides managing his 650-acre operation raising beef, laying hens for eggs, broiler chickens for meat, pork, turkeys, rabbits, lamb, duck eggs, and forestry products (lumber and firewood), which he describes as “beyond organic,” Salatin has written nine books promoting holistic and sustainable food production, and he spends about 100 days a year taking the anti-GMO message to colleges and environmental groups.

Salatin believes he knows what the consumer wants when it comes to food. After all, he markets all of his farm’s production to roughly 6,000 customers within a four-hour drive of the farm.

“We have no desire to sell to supermarkets,” Salatin says. “They should be obsolete.”

As with several other sources for this article, when I asked Salatin why he is opposed to GMOs, he preferred to be interviewed by email, not telephone. Below is his complete, unedited response:

“Every month it seems like a new study is showing direct health problems, whether it’s tumours, sterility, autism or whatever. It took 14 years to connect the dots of infertile and malformed amphibians to DDT. Nature is resilient, but eventually, assaults yield their condemning data, and that is where we are with GMOs. The impugning data that was merely a trickle five years ago is a veritable flood now. We’re connecting the dots, and it’s not pretty. Anybody who denies the increasingly damning science either doesn’t know about it or refuses to believe it.

“Second, the production claims are simply not true. They are not really more productive on an energy-in, energy-out assessment. Just because a plant produces more per square foot does not make it a net positive gain. If it takes way more energy or erosion or wildlife death, for example, to get that increase, the negatives outweigh the positives. GMO cotton, for example, is less frost resistant. GMO corn is so hard a pig can’t eat the kernels; they have to be ground prior to feeding.

“Third, it violates nature’s patterns. This is not a modern permutation of Mendel’s peas. Mendel was crossing peas with peas, not peas with corn with grasshoppers with salmon. The fact is that nature has tremendous barriers to keep GMOs from happening: by definition they could not happen, ever, in nature. To disregard these boundaries and wade into it like a bunch of swashbuckling drunken conquistadors is hubris turned to madness. When the sexual plumbing doesn’t match, it just ain’t right.

“Fourth, it has resulted in some 300 million pounds of increased pesticide use. Rather than delivering on its promise to reduce pesticides and herbicides, it has actually done the opposite. This is not good for our ecological womb.

“Fifth, it represents the most egregious violation of private property mankind has ever seen. In order to work, it must be promiscuous. But this promiscuity respects no boundary fence. Here we have completely alien life forms, owned by one person, trespassing on neighbours’ farms and creating life forms both foreign and abhorrent to the farmer. And, in the wisdom of the U.S. Supreme Court, rather than holding the trespasser liable, the victim must pay a royalty fee for the privilege of having his property violated. It’s as if a rampant bull came over and stomped your flower bed and rather than having the owner of the bull pay restitution for damages, you have to pay for the privilege of having your flower garden stomped. Nothing could be more uncivilized. GMOs give the evil mind an unprecedented power to act like a barbarian.

“Sixth, GMOs view life as fundamen-tally mechanical rather than biological. This is the heart of the industrial agriculture and it explains why we have an entirely new lexicon of tragedy: campylobacter, lysteria, E. coli, salmonella, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, C.diff, MRSA, food allergies. These are all modern inventions that have occurred as we’ve moved to a mechanical view of life. No longer do we ask how to ensure the pigness of the pig or the tomatoness of the tomato. The only question is can we grow it faster, fatter, bigger, cheaper.

“Any society that views its life from this base, manipulative, mechanical philosophy will view its citizens the same way and other cultures the same way. If we want to preserve a place where the Maryness of Mary and the Tomness of Tom is something to be reverenced, then it starts with the pigness of the pig. It’s how we respect and honour the least of these that creates a moral and ethical framework to honour the greatest of these (humans).

“By embracing GMOs, our culture has slipped down the ultimate slope toward eliminating any sacredness to life and have exchanged human slavery for overall life slavery. That is not a positive exchange.”

While some will argue that Salatin, as an organic producer, is mainly interested in increasing demand for organic production, many of his concerns are echoed by conventional producers.

Wendall Lutz is a conventional soybean and corn producer from Dewey, Illinois. He does not grow herbicide-tolerant soybeans because of his fears about weed resistance, but he does plant BT corn because of the need to control insects in his corn.

Even so, when I spoke with Lutz, he was in Washington, D.C. lobbying for mandatory labelling of GMO food.

What must be done?

When conversations turn anti-GMO, probably the most common reaction for the majority of North American farmers is to roll their eyes, shake their heads, and walk away. But simply ignoring the anti-GMO movement is not a solution.

Do not forget that only 28 countries allow GMO production, and since Scotland recently voted against the growing of GMO crops, that number is shrinking.

Instead of walking away, farmers need to listen to those opposed to GMOs and understand why they are concerned.

The best advice for a farmer wanting to save GMO technology, however, comes from a most unlikely source.

Mark Lynas is considered the father of the anti-GMO movement. Back in the ’90s he wrote the first article citing the evils of GMOs. He admits to the vandalism of GMO crops and field trials. But on January 3, 2013 he reversed his position.

During a speech at the Oxford Farming Conference Lynas said: “I’m also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid-1990s and that I thereby assisted in demonizing an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.”

Today Lynas is a visiting fellow at Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and currently works with the Cornell Alliance for Science.

Like Salatin, Lynas insisted on being interviewed by email, not by telephone (I guess when you’re as controversial as they are, you learn to be extra cautious and to do everything you can to avoid misinterpretation.)

Lynas has this advice for farmers:

“I think the Canadian farming sector has to be very clear that it is supportive of both transparency and sustainability. That means improving its performance in both these areas, and demonstrating why GMO crops can help deliver a more sustainable agricultural system with higher productivity and minimized use of chemical inputs.

“It also means showing how no till and other recent innovations facilitated by GMOs have helped make farming friendlier to the soil and to the local and global environment. But it also means acknowledging that there is much more to be done — and being part of the resulting conversation rather than standing against change.

“In my view transparency is good, because it means that farmers and producers can make the case for why new breeding technologies are worthwhile. On the other hand if you hide the presence of GMOs in food, you are not in a very good position to talk about their benefits. I would like to see a much more proactive approach — what we want to see are informed consumers, so how do we best facilitate this rather than being opposed?”

Lynas adds: “My view is that farmers have to tell their stories better. Big Ag is not considered a credible voice — but farmers, especially family farmers, can tell an authentic story about the reality of farming today, the kinds of decisions they make and why. The fact that so many otherwise rational people believe that Monsanto has somehow enslaved a generation of North American farmers testifies to these same farmers’ failure to explain why they choose GMO seeds. In my view communication is far too important to be left to the professionals.”


Four questions for Rachel Parent

Toronto-area high school student Rachel Parent has become the face of GMO opposition in Canada. We were not able to arrange a telephone interview, but below is her email response.

1. Are you opposed to GMO and GMO technology? Why?

GMOs were introduced without adequate, independent, pre-market safety testing. When I met with Health Canada officials, I asked and found out that neither Health Canada nor the FDA do any of their own studies on the safety of GMO crops. There’s a lot of research indicating that GMO crops and the toxic chemicals used with them are hazardous to human health and the environment, but unfortunately, there’s no safety monitoring.

2. Do you consider GMO foods safe? Why, or why not?

Numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies have linked GMOs to organ damage, digestive disorders, tumours and reproductive problems. Many studies have also shown the environmental hazards of GMOs, including cross-contamination of organic and non-GMO crops, increased use of herbicides and pesticides, super bugs and super weeds, and the dying off of monarch butterflies and bees with potential to affect our food supply.

3. What if any action do you think needs to be done with respect to GMOs?

We need long-term, independent studies to determine if GMOs are safe. Until then, no new GE crops should be approved, and all products containing GMOs should be labelled, like they are in 64 countries around the world, including China and Russia.

4. If the above action(s) were taken do you feel you and consumers would be more accepting of GMOs?

If GMOs were proven safe through independent studies, consumers would be much more accepting of them. Unfortunately, the only studies being relied on for safety are provided by the biotech companies, the same companies that stand to benefit by product approvals. Consumers don’t trust these corporations as they’re solely driven by profit, and spend 10s of millions of dollars opposing GMO labelling and consumers’ right to know what’s in our food.

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Gerald Pilger

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