Environmental Health News

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Modifying Crops a Risky Venture
[Rachel's Introduction: "As things stand in Canada and the U.S., the precautionary principle has been abandoned and GM [genetically modified] crops can be marketed as long as the producing company asserts there is no harm. As scientists are not looking for harm, none is being found."]
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By Roy Strang
Once upon a time (no, this is not a fairy tale!) the car manufacturer General Motors was happy to claim that "What is good for GM is good for U.S." Now that all of the big three North American car makers face strong competition from across the Pacific, that aphorism has lost its sting. A different GM has come into being and, just as that first assertion was flawed, the second, which means 'Genetically Modified', is far from being an unmixed blessing.

So long as GM scientists and practitioners use their sophisticated technologies to advance the time-honoured work of plant and animal breeders, it can be beneficial. Through careful observation, parent selection and crossing we've come a long way from the original low- yield barley and wheat of the Fertile Crescent some 20,000 years ago. Many of the garden flowers we nurture and cherish today are the result of careful and thoughtful crossings.

Farm food crops selected to withstand drought or grow in soils with high sodium content are undoubtedly beneficial. Similarly, selective and thoughtful breeding over decades -- if not centuries -- has given us today's pets and farm stock.

Sadly, dangerously, genetic scientists have gone far beyond emulating or hastening natural processes of development. Employed by major agro- chemical firms, they are developing sterile plants so that the historical practice of retaining seed from a harvest for next year's planting is useless, and farmers have to purchase new seeds each year from these companies which have cornered the market; remember prairie farmer Percy Schmeiser's losing battle with Monsanto? Herbicide- resistant crop plants facilitate chemical weeding, but they are genetically-uniform.

In other words, this is monoculture carried to an extreme with all its attendant risks, though it does create a market for the herbicides produced and promoted by agri-business.

It is well established that insects can, and do, develop resistance to artificial insecticides. Accordingly, the natural bacillus toxin, Bt, is being used more and more. Formerly it was applied as a spray, now it is being inserted into plant's genetic structure. It seems inevitable that, with its widespread use, insects will develop immunity or resistance to Bt and so we shall be deprived of what was once a safe, effective plant protection tool.

As plants become more closely bred and specialized with an increasingly narrow gene base, they will become increasingly vulnerable to disease and, should this happen as in the Irish potato blight, disastrous harvest losses will be inevitable.

Also, we are in real danger of losing genetic information stored in the variety of plant strains which are being discarded as low-yielding or otherwise unsuitable for modern mechanized farming.

Another area of concern is the absence of long-term examination of the health effects of 'artificial' plants. As things stand in Canada and the U.S., the precautionary principle has been abandoned and GM crops can be marketed as long as the producing company asserts there is no harm. As scientists are not looking for harm, none is being found.

Another problem is that it is becoming harder and harder for a grower to retain organic certification since, increasingly, crop plants are being genetically modified, so growers cannot easily claim to be GM free, which is essential for certification.

In moves suggestive of horror films or science fiction, genetic scientists are now trying to mix animal and plant genes.

Their rationale seems to be "let's try this new avenue," and the cautionary question "should we be doing this?" is muted, or even ignored.

While we must be wary of telling corporations how they spend their money, is there a point when the community should say "this has gone as far as it should?" Certainly shareholders are in a position to ask for answers, and the electorate can call a government to account if public funds are allocated to questionable research.

Dr. Roy Strang writes weekly on the environment for the Peace Arch News. westerlea@shaw.ca

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