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When Baby Corn Attacks: Judging the "virtues" of GM Foods

Monday, January 15, 2007

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Written by Becky Wallace

Editor’s Note: In another new feature for The Cannon.ca, we’ve formed a partnership with The Peak in order to bring you an advanced look at their upcoming issue. The next copy of the Peak, which focuses on Environmental issues, hits campus newsstands on Tuesday the 23rd.

Genetically Modified (GM) foods have infiltrated the international market, the grocery stores, and unexpected farm fields. Yet despite every and all attempts made by agri-corporations to get GM food in every corner of the world, people still don’t want to eat them. There are parts of Africa that have refused any food aid that contains GM material from the US. According to polls done by the Consumers’ Association of Canada, 91per cent of Canadians want mandatory labeling on products that contain GM food. Considering that food is one of those things you need to stay alive, you can’t really blame a person for wanting to protect it.

Supporters of GM foods like to assert that this resistance is merely uneducated hysteria. Yet many well-respected scientists are questioning the validity and safety of genetically modified crops. There are numerous concerns for human health, food safety, and the environment (not to mention the commodification of life and huge economic ramifications), just a few of which are:

  • The rise of monoculture in the agricultural sector. Lack of biodiversity leads to an inherent vulnerability to disease and pests and can result in single infestations being able to wipe out entire crops.
  • Flow of pest-resistant engineered genes into related wild species, which can lead to the development of superweeds and superpests.
  • Many plants are engineered to tolerate extremely high levels of a specific herbicide sold by the same company such as Monsanto’s (an agricultural corporation) Roundup Ready crops. This allows farmers to spray massive quantities of herbicide to get rid of the weeds without worrying about damaging the plant. Glycophosphate herbicides found in Roundup have been linked to Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, one of the fastest-rising cancers in North America.

Despite all these concerns, the argument made by agri-corporations that GM crops will eliminate poverty is pretty compelling. They promise lower costs to farmers, pest and drought resistant crops, increased yields, and reduced pesticide use. However, as evidence has shown, it is hard to trust that the companies that gave farmers sterile GM seeds (forcing them to constantly buy and increase profits) have suddenly turned philanthropic and want to feed the world.

Even when companies perform field trial tests that show GM foods grow better than the “natural” alternative, these results often do not apply to real farming situations. The results of rushing unadapted and inadequately tested seeds into the market were seen in 1997 when Monsanto genetically engineered a pesticide, Bt, into cotton. Supposedly by lowering the costs of pesticides that would normally be sprayed and by increasing yields, corporations would be helping farmers in India get higher crop yields and therefore make a better living.

Instead, farmers in India where Bt cotton was introduced lost revenues of over $1 billion due to crop failure. Monsanto promised harvests of 1,500 kg/acre, but actual harvests were as low as 200 kg. These huge losses to already poverty-stricken farmers in India are a huge reason behind the alarming suicide rates of Indian farmers. Since 1997, more than 25,000 peasants have committed suicide in India, some by ingesting the very expensive chemicals they had been forced to buy for their GM crops; more than 90 per cent of these suicide victims were in debt. It seems that the biotech’s goal of reducing world hunger may have gone a little off track.

The most disturbing effects of GM foods, unfortunately, are not even in the science itself. By forcing farmers in India to pay for seeds, what has traditionally never belonged to anyone, corporations are taking self-reliance and power away from the farmers and forcing them to become dependent on corporations. This practice is known as “biopiracy”. This is when universities, governments or corporations take plants that have been cultivated by a distant tribe or people, change a gene or selectively breed it to produce a uniform variety, and then patent this “new” strain.

Farmers have actually been sued for planting seeds their ancestors have always sown because the “intellectual property” of the seed now belonged to a corporation. In India alone, strains of basmati rice, neem, guggul, and turmeric have been awarded US patents.

As Vandana Shiva, an Indian farmers rights activist, has said:

“Patents are a replay of colonization as it took place 500 years ago in a number of ways… They are pieces of paper issued by patent offices of the world that basically are telling corporations that if there's knowledge or living material, plants, seeds, medicines which the white man has not known about before, claim it on our behalf, and make profits out of it… Neem, which we have used for millennia for pest control, for medicine, which is documented in every one of our texts, which my grandmother and mother have used for everyday functions in the home, for protecting grain, for protecting silks and woolens, for pest control, is treated as invention held by Grace, the chemical company…. I think we will soon need to name this round of piracy through patents as “re-colonization,” a new colonialization which differs from the old only in this - the old colonization only took over land, the new colonization is taking over life itself.”

It is quite clear who benefits from GM foods: the corporations who sell them.

With all the concerns over GM foods, you would think that governments would be stepping in with, at the very least, some regulations. Yet the European Union (EU) is the only one to have tried and they were trapped in court for years. After the EU announced a temporary ban on the import of GM crops until further testing, the US, Canada, and Argentina filed a dispute against the EU’s decision with the World Trade Organization (WTO). They claimed the health regulation was a trade barrier that prevented Canadian GM products from being sold in Europe.

The WTO ruled that the EU’s freeze on imports of GM foods was illegal. However, the safety of GM crops or the need for environmental protection, was never brought into discussion. The EU was restricting trade and that was all the panel needed to consider. A corporation’s right to sell a product clearly trumped a country’s right to protect their environment and health.

“There is clear evidence of the negative effects of genetically engineered crops on the environment and there is very little evidence for their safety for human consumption,” says Joseph Mendelson of the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C. “Given what we do and don’t know about these foods, every country should have the inalienable right to do what it feels is necessary to protect its citizens and environment.”

It doesn’t take a lot of foresight to realize that we should be testing new products before we put them out into the environment and on the market. Remember DDT? Shouldn’t we be learning something from this?

Even though over 80 per cent of canola grown in Canada is GM, there is still a serious lack of independent, peer-reviewed research on the safety of GM crops. GM crops are being grown all over but Health Canada is still “in the process” of developing regulations. A study just published by the University of Guelph showed that GM crops may pose a food safety risk as engineered traits can crossover to other plants in the nearby area (or farther away if a seed can hitch a ride). These are the types of studies that should have been done BEFORE growing GM crops everywhere without confinement.

The situation becomes even stickier because Canada has no real regulations over who is responsible when contamination does occur. Percy Schmeiser, a Saskatchewan canola farmer, was dragged into court when his crops were contaminated with Monsanto’s RoundUp Ready canola. The contamination was completely against his will and outside of his control, yet Monsanto still insisted that he pay them their technology fee.

Science is plagued with bad ambition. Are we so eager to use new technology, just because we can, that we plough ahead without asking questions? It seems that we’re always asking the right questions, such as “Why do some parts of the world starve while others let excesses of food rot?” but we like our answers overly simplistic and convenient: “The answer must be that our crops need new genes and then we can grow more!”

The reality is that we have more food resources than people. As of 2004 (the last stats available), the world was producing enough food so every single person could have 2800 calories a day. Yet over 815 million people lack adequate food and nutrition.

Even in rich countries like Canada, people are still starving. The problem is a lack of access to food and not a lack of food production (or a lack of GM crops for that matter). Yet billions of dollars will continue to be funneled into the agri-tech industry (billions which could have gone to canceling debt of “developing nations) so they can pretend to fight poverty. GM crops aren’t superior. They aren’t proven. People don’t want to eat them. The only benefit is to the companies who make and sell them. So why are we still growing them?

The submission deadline for The Peak’s next issue is Jan. 22, the topic is Drugs. The deadline following issue on Arts & Culture is Feb 12.

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  1. Posted by: Thomas Ferguson on Jan 15, 2007 @ 1:34pm

    There is a valid alternative to GM crops in every grocery store. It is clearly labelled and passes the extra costs that a farmer has for using non GM crops on to the consumer who cares. This alternative is Organic, however most consumers do not buy this due to the fact that it is more expensive, thereby showing that the public believes in GM crops as long as they produce a CHEAPER product with no known health hazards. hence the reason we are still growing them

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