My mom was complaining about the tomatoes she picked this summer at an organic farm in the Okanagan. The farm used to be conventional, but converted in the last few years. It wasn’t just the higher prices that bothered her, she said the skins were tough and the fruit was slow to ripen on the counter. She asked me if they could be genetically modified. I assured her that certified organic meant no genetic modification. And the flavourless Flavr Savr tomato that was briefly on the market was dead anyways. She is more suspicious of organic growers than conventional ones. Having an organic preacher as a daughter has clearly not allayed her fears. She also has complete confidence in the packages and cans she buys in bulk from the big box stores.
I wish she had been with me Monday night. Lucy Sharratt from the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) was in town and gave a talk on Genetic Modification and the Future of Food. Maybe my mom would have believed her.
Sharratt presented the facts and the myths on genetically modified (GM) foods. It’s been fifteen years since the first genetically modified crop was planted. Currently there are only seven main GM crops on the market – the big four are soy, corn, canola and white sugar beet. The others are cotton, and virus resistant varieties of papaya and squash. The biotechnology companies have fallen very short of their promise of higher yields, lower pesticide use, curing diseases and feeding the world. They’ve only been able to develop two traits so far – herbicide tolerance and insect resistance.
So while their progress may not be as bad as we thought, there’s still no labeling program on the myriad packaged foods that contain GM ingredients, no comprehensive environmental assessments, and a complete lack of transparency and democracy in the government approval process. Sharratt identified the next three big challenges and opportunities to voice our concerns to policy makers and politicians.
GM Round-up Ready Alfalfa. We don’t eat it, so why would it be important? It’s a very important crop for farmers. It’s a high protein animal feed and used as a cover crop to help build healthy soil. Here’s a surprise, both conventional and organic farmers are against GM Alfalfa. Why? Because it’s completely unnecessary. Turns out even conventional farmers don’t use herbicides to manage weeds, ordinary, clever alfalfa keeps the weeds down all by itself. Although not mentioned in Sharratt’s talk, farmer Percy Schmeiser thinks backyard gardeners should also worry because alfalfa is part of the pea family, so it can potentially cross breed with GM alfalfa. You could be eating homegrown GM shelling peas at dinner without even knowing it. (More on contamination issues in two posts I wrote last year when Percy visited: The Persecution of Percy and Percy Part Two).
The Enviropig. Scientists at the University of Guelph have designed a pig that will produce less phosphorous in their feces. All that phosphorous has been a real problem for the big factory farms; it’s particularly damaging to the marine environment. But instead of changing the big factory farm system (the actual problem), they changed the pig. And never mind that there’s actually a feed supplement now that will also reduce the phosphorous output.
The GM Atlantic salmon. This fish, designed for the fish farm, will grow twice as fast as regular farmed salmon. The small US company plans to grow the eggs, not in their own backyard, but in Prince Edward Island, then ship them to Panama for processing. The finished product will then be shipped back to the US.
Canada can either open or close the door on all three of these GM developments. Keep up on petitions and other actions at CBAN.
April Reeves, of G.E. Free B.C., who accompanied Sharratt on her speaking tour of BC, also hopes to have our entire province declared a GM free zone. Salt Spring Island, Powell River and several towns in the Kootenays are already GM Free. Maybe if we do it one city at a time, our current provincial government won’t notice. Like the feds, they haven’t exactly been leading the way with holistic decision making.