After 20+ years, governmental advocacy on an unprecedented scale, and billions of dollars of taxpayer funding in Canada alone, commercialized GM today consists almost entirely of just two traits, says retired professor of plant agriculture E. Ann Clark.
Clark was responding to a GM promotional article by Robert Wager and Bob Bartley in the Vancouver Sun.
Wager and Bartley’s article, titled “Overwhelming number of farmers favour the use of GE crops”, claimed that Canadian farmers “overwhelmingly grow genetically engineered crops” and “accepted” GM technology.
The timing of the article is interesting, as it appeared shortly before the annual report from GM industry lobby group ISAAA was published, revealing that GM crop plantings have decreased slightly in Canada for the first time since the technology was introduced.
Prof Clark sent the commentary below to the Vancouver Sun, which did not publish it. We are happy to do so.
Reality check on “Overwhelming number of farmers favour the use of GE crops”
E. Ann Clark, retired professor, Plant Agriculture, University of Guelph
GMWatch, 20 Feb 2014
For anyone not yet fully on-board with the rosy, GM-based agricultural vision of Messers Wager and Bartley, a few facts may be in order:
1. Who wants to buy GM crops or GM-containing foods? Well, no one, actually. When was the last time you saw people protesting to demand the right to eat GM foods? Why would they, when essentially all of the GM land on the planet is sown to crops modified with just two traits – herbicide tolerance and Bt (endotoxins that target specific kinds of insect pests) – fitted to four industrial crops – corn, soy, canola, and cotton – none of which are directly human consumable?
Despite all the tantalizing promises that GM proponents offer –in the pipeline, just around the corner - what has GM actually delivered? After 20+ years, governmental advocacy on an unprecedented scale, and billions of dollars of taxpayer funding in Canada alone, commercialized GM today consists almost entirely of just these two traits.
A “GM-variety” is a conventionally bred variety that has been fitted with transgenes conveying either or both of herbicide tolerance and Bt. The remaining tens of thousands of genes in a modern crop variety –the ones conferring high yield, drought tolerance, and all other valued traits – are the result of conventional breeding – not GM.
2. Who wants to grow GM crops? As of 2012, 90% of all GM land on the planet was in just 5 countries: the US, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, and India. The spread of this technology is confined almost wholly to major export-oriented nations.
Perhaps a better question is who doesn’t want to grow (or import) GM crops? Well, that would be just about everybody else. Hard to imagine anyone turning down this wondrous new technology? Check the 162 countries that ratified the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, intended “to protect biological diversity from the potential risks posed by living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology”. Any glaring omissions – say Canada, Argentina, and the US?
Since when do people have to buy GM crops just because we want to sell them?
A very large majority of the land sown to canola, soybean, cotton, and corn in the US and Canada contains varieties fitted with herbicide tolerance (mostly to Monsanto’s Roundup) and/or Bt. But is this because farmers are thrilled with GM? Or do they fear legal liability for uncontrollable GM contamination? Or is it because they have no choice if they want to access the best available conventional plant breeding? According to AAFC, by 2006, just 1 of the 49 canola varieties in the prairies was not herbicide tolerant (either transgenic or mutagenized).
Why is this? Because the corporations which own the herbicide tolerance genes, and of course, the herbicides themselves, also have a lock on the seed trade.
Even farmers who once believed GM offered benefits are now in doubt, owing to the cost and difficulty of controlling rapidly evolving weed tolerance to the herbicides employed with the herbicide-tolerant crops (http://farmindustrynews.com/ag-technology-solution-center/glyphosate-resistant-weed-problem-extends-more-species-more-farms). As of 2012, 49% of 3000 surveyed US farmers had glyphosate-tolerant weeds on their farms (glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup) –up from 34% in 2011. Hundreds of biotypes from 25 different weed species are now glyphosate-tolerant. As of 2012, glyphosate-tolerant weeds covered 25 million ha (61 million ac) of US crop land – and growing.
3. Are GM crops safe to eat? Who knows? Without mandatory labelling – which has been rejected several times by the Canadian government – there can be no epidemiological assessment. We are a continent-sized experiment with one treatment (GM-exposed) and no control.
Scared yet? Check out what the Canadian government requires to demonstrate that GM crops are safe for human consumption. See what The Royal Society of Canada – the scientific elite of the country – reported when the Canadian government asked them to analyze the GM regulatory process (http://rsc-src.ca/en/expert-panels/rsc-reports/elements-precaution-recommendations-for-regulation-food-biotechnology-in).
So, is GM the way of the future, or is it a technology released prematurely into commerce, to benefit – exactly whom? Is herbicide tolerance the way to control weeds? Or should we adopt one of the guiding principles of organic farming – problem avoidance by design - and redesign cropping systems to narrow the niche for weeds to proliferate?
Can organic feed the world? Can conventional? Can GM? Is this even the right question? People are hungry for reasons that have remarkably little to do with crop genetics.