I had the privilege of hearing Percy Schmeiser speak recently. Monsanto sued this prairie farmer for growing Round-up Ready Canola when in fact he hadn’t planted it (see previous post: the Persecution of Percy). When the vigorous 79 year old farmer took the stage, he got a standing ovation. He looked the most unlikely hero, but when he began to speak, I could hear why he was such a powerful spokesperson for farmers rights and how passionate he was about his cause.
He gave a brilliant summary of the biotech industry, from its North American introduction of soy, cotton, corn and canola in 1996 up to today.
“We now have 14 full crop years of GMOs [genetically modified organisms],” he said. “It’s no longer what can or may happen, but what does happen.”
There is indeed ample proof that the many claims the industry made weren’t true. Schmeiser mentions a report called Failure to Yield, released in March 2009 by Doug Gurian-Sherman, of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“Yields have gone down drastically; three times the chemicals are being used, 15 times more for cotton; the nutritional value is 50% of conventional or organic; and there is even more starvation in the world,” said Schmeiser.
The report concludes that in terms of increasing yields, traditional breeding outperformed genetic engineering by a long shot.
“The purpose of the GMO industry was to control the seed supply and then the food supply and take the rights of farmers away,” Schmeiser said. “There is no such thing as co-existence with GMOs. You can’t have organic farms if there are GMOs. They will kill the organic farmer. There is no more pure canola on the prairies anymore. All of it is contaminated.”
What I didn’t realize, is because canola is a member of the brassica family, it means that every member (broccoli, kale, brussel sprouts, etc.) can become contaminated. GMO alfalfa has just been introduced, it is part of the pea family. GMO wheat was stopped three years ago, but it may already be too late for the wheat grass family. So it’s not just the farmers’ fields that are at risk, but our backyard garden crops too. As for the food on our plates, we can be pretty sure that every cob of corn we’re eating now has the Bt toxin (Bacillus thuringiensis is a soil bacterium that is toxic to some insects), especially if it comes from the U.S. Organic farmers have long used this natural insecticide and worry that its widespread use will decrease its efficacy. GMO sugar beets are used to make sugar so most sweet treats are full of foreign genes too.
The latest shock is that Canadian flax is contaminated with Triffid even though the genetically modified seed was deregistered and ordered destroyed 10 years ago because of a wary European market. Triffid had a weed gene added to it that allowed it to grow in herbicide-drenched soil. Developed at the University of Saskatchewan in the 1990’s, it was aptly named after the flesh eating plants in the 1951 novel The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham. Another case of contaminated funding at a university. The “accident” has been blamed on a disgruntled U. of Sask professor who has since been fired. All Canadian shipments to Europe are now stopped. The Europeans buy 70% of our flax – “ a $320 million industry is potentially destroyed.
Crop contamination isn’t the only damage. There is now proof that GMOs can have detrimental effects on our health. In Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods, Jeffrey Smith lists 65 health risks of GM foods. Pregnant women and children are advised to stop eating them because they can lower the immune system. GMOs are also linked to declining fertility; male sperm rates have dropped by 50 percent.
The majority of the public are dead against GMOs and wouldn’t eat any food that contained them if they knew they were eating them. Currently Europe, Australia, New Zealand, China and Japan all have mandatory labeling laws for genetically engineered (GE) foods, in fact 40 countries worldwide have them. Yet in spite of overwhelming support for a similar law in Canada (a decade of polling compiled by Greenpeace shows an average of 88%), Health Canada with the support of the food industry has opted for a voluntary program only. Even though pasteurized and irradiated foods must be labeled, GE foods were deemed “safe”. Greenpeace has not yet been able to turn up one GE label here in their on-going search through grocery store shelves.
In spite of setbacks and lack of public support, the industry continues to make advances. Schmeiser warned of the antibiotic resistant marker genes in canola. And the new “stacker gene” technology that allows them to layer in the viruses and bacteria. Other “innovations” include using plants to produce prescription drugs – “ currently industrial enzymes, growth hormones, contraceptives, blood thinners and clotters are being “grown” this way. Molecular farming, as it is called, is cheaper – “ which of course trumps safety.