Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Guest-Post Relationship

I doubt that anyone will get the reference to Laurie Anderson in the title, but I couldn't resist.
Back on December 20th, Valerie Leithoff wrote an op-ed piece in the Victoria Times-Colonist titled No Need to Fear Genetically Modified Crops. As usual, it puts forward the argument that GM crops are safe (the same conclusion reached by Nathanael Johnson at Grist.org), and takes up the company line that only GM crops will save us in the uncertain future.
Local author and former organic farmer Paula Johanson  begs to differ in her response. She's also let me post that response here.

Paula Johanson
By permission of the author

In response to Valerie Leithoff’s commentary (“No need to fear genetically modified crops,” Dec. 20), it is more correct to say Canada is going to need thorough testing of genetically modified organisms in the future.
The typical public response to GMOs can only be characterized as “generally strong, negative, passionate and extreme” when people become aware of unlabelled, incompletely tested GMOs in the food industry.
Leithoff is accurate when she admits people “distrust or fear the unnatural essence of GMOs, and transferring genes from unrelated species is comprehended as a Frankenstein-type experiment” and “when people don’t understand things, there is a natural tendency to fear them.” It is not things I don’t understand that cause me to distrust GMOs: it is things I do understand that cause me to call for more thorough testing and for labels on any resulting food products.
I write on science and health for educational publishers. For 15 years as a market gardener, I sold produce at farmers’ markets. As well, for eight years, I wrote columns for a newspaper in a farming community. I have studied considerably to find out what the scientific community is actually saying about GMOs. There is no need to fear genetically modified crops simply because they exist, but there are plenty of reasons for distrusting the motivations of chemical engineering companies that produce GMOs and market products such as terminator seeds.
It’s not only GMOs that need to be more thoroughly tested, but the results of how GMO crops are grown in field conditions. Leithoff states: “Farmers growing GMO crops that contain biological insecticide have greatly reduced their use of highly poisonous chemical insecticides, cutting their costs and harmful effects.”
Rather than using fewer chemicals because of growing GMO crops containing biological insecticide, factory farms commonly grow GMO crops such as Monsanto’s own Roundup Ready canola that survive being sprayed with glyphosate (sold by Monsanto as Roundup) not only after planting, but close to harvest. The result is the presence in the food-processing industry of wheat, canola and corn that contain residues of pesticides. New studies are being done to measure the effects of pesticide residues in GMOs on animal and human health.
New and long-term studies are needed, because the papers Leithoff mentions as showing no evidence of dangers were for short-term testing in which laboratory animals were fed GMOs for 12 to 20 weeks. Some of these tests have been discredited after independent analysis. New studies are being done in which animals fed GMOs with pesticide residues show sharply increasing health effects after six months to a year.
Leithoff mentions the future of climate change, saying “the use of GMOs will allow us to adapt to the sudden, unpredictable changes [in climates], since new varieties can be created quicky.” She states: “Conventional crop breeding can take up to 15 years to establish a new crop variation, but with genetic engineering we can establish a new GMO variation in less than six months.”
Though our farmers will need to adapt to the reality of climate change, Leithoff is in error: New GMO varieties cannot be produced and come to market in six months or less. Wilhelm Peekhaus, in his book Resistance is Fertile: Canadian Struggles on the BioCommons, says:
“While traditionally bred varieties typically come in under US$1 million, Monsanto has stated that a genetically engineered variety requires at least 10 years to develop at a cost of between $100 million and $150 million.
“By comparison, conventional breeders, assuming they had access to sufficient research and development funds, could introduce between 100 and 150 new varieties in less time.
“Despite claims advanced by the biotechnology industry, intrinsic yield increases, as well as disease resistance, grain size, maturation period, and responses to biotic and abiotic stresses, are attributable largely to the robustness of the traditionally bred germ plasm rather than to the one or more genetically engineered traits inserted into the seed.”
Many B.C. scientists are speaking about GMOs. Marine biologist Alexandra Morton has written about GMO salmon. Herb Barbolet works in food security and sustainable community development at Simon Fraser University. The University of British Columbia’s faculty of land and food systems conducts careful studies on some GMOs.
While it is refreshing to read an opinion from a local undergraduate student of geography, it would be better to read an informed opinion from a working scientist in an appropriate discipline.
Paula Johanson of Saanich is a University of Victoria graduate student, and the author of several books on food and sustainability.

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