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Deconstructing Dinner

Kootenay Co-op Radio CJLY

Nelson, B.C. Canada

 

May 14, 2009

 

Title: Genetically Engineered Crops - "A Spectacular Failure?" w/ Dr. E. Ann Clark

 

Producer/Host: Jon Steinman

Transcript: Rebecca Blair

 

Jon Steinman: And welcome to Deconstructing Dinner, produced at Kootenay Co-op Radio CJLY in Nelson, British Columbia. The show is broadcast on stations around the world including on CHLI Rossland B.C. and CJUM Winnipeg, Manitoba. Deconstructing Dinner is also available as a Podcast. I'm Jon Steinman.

 

Back on April 9th Deconstructing Dinner featured an entire episode on the precarious state of the University of Guelph's organic agriculture program. As was learned, the University was interested in cutting the program along with others displaying low enrollment. Mentioned as part of that episode was the upcoming arrival here in the Kootenay region of BC of the director of that program; Associate Professor Dr. E. Ann Clark. Ann has since visited the region following an invite from the Kootenay Local Agricultural Society. As part of her visit, Ann delivered a number of talks to area farmers including one, that will form the backbone of today's broadcast, and which focused on her longstanding opposition to GMOs (genetically modified organisms) otherwise referred to as genetically engineered organisms or GE.

 

Having worked in the Agriculture department at the University of Guelph ever since genetically engineered organisms first made their way into the food system, Ann has developed a very solid understanding of the technology in light of the very concentrated focus of research on such technologies at the University. Genetically engineered foods are now pervasive throughout North America's industrial food system, and Ann Clark continues to believe that the technologies as they exist today have prematurely entered into the global food supply.

 

Deconstructing Dinner recorded her talk, which sought to prove once and for all that genetic engineering has been a "spectacular failure."

 

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JS: Now before we launch into the show today, there are a few updates to share that nevertheless tie into the topic of today's show. The first two updates here are more items of clarification following our April 30th part II of our Primer on Pesticide Propaganda series. That show featured updates on the latest trend across Canada to implement provincial cosmetic pesticide bans (cosmetic referring to any use on lawns and gardens.) Mentioned as part of that show were the outcomes of Quebec's pesticide ban—Canada's first provincial ban—implemented between 2003 and 2006. As was mentioned Dow Agrosciences, one of the world's largest manufacturers of agricultural chemicals, did, on August 25th 2008, file a notice of intent to seek compensation from the Government of Canada for lost profits resulting from the ban on their 2,4-D herbicide. It was said that the claim would be brought under NAFTA's article 1105 and article 1110 and would seek a minimum of $2 million in damages.

 

Dow argues that the Quebec ban was imposed without scientific justification and they dispute the cancer risk associated with 2,4-D. Now we mentioned on the show that no indication had been given as to what steps Dow would take next following the notice of intent, but what we were unaware of at the time of that broadcast is that Dow has indeed formalized their challenge, back on March 31st.

 

The David Suzuki Foundation, EcoJustice and Equiterre are calling upon the Government of Canada to defend the ban.

 

In light of the Province of Ontario having followed Quebec's lead with their provincial cosmetic pesticide ban, coming into effect on April 22nd, Deconstructing Dinner also contacted the Province to gauge whether Dow's actions are a concern to them. According to Kate Jordan of Ontario's Ministry of the Environment, they have "made the decision to ban the use and sale of highly toxic chemical pesticides for cosmetic use in the interest of protecting public health and safety. If a corporation chooses to pursue legal avenues, that is its choice to do so, but we stand by our decision."

 

And one more point of clarification, we did also on that broadcast hear from Jahi Chappell, one of the co-authors of a University of Michigan study titled Organic Agriculture and the Global Food Supply. Jahi's co-authors were mentioned on that broadcast but one author was mistakenly omitted from that list, and that was Jeremy Moghtader.

 

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JS: Another interesting bit of information that we came across since that broadcast, and certainly worth sharing, was found on the website of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association. The association was founded in 1970 and is a voluntary farm organization dedicated to "creating a policy environment that improves the profitability and sustainability of farming and the agricultural industry as a whole." Of interest was their annual convention held back in January of this year, 2009, in Winnipeg, and in particular the lineup of speakers invited to educate their members. On the list, CropLife Canada's President Lorne Hepworth, who was featured throughout that Pesticide Propaganda broadcast. Again, CropLife represents the major agricultural pesticide manufacturers and developers of genetically engineered seed technologies. Now of course it's no surprise that the President of CropLife would be invited to address a roomful of farmers, but following the highly questionable remarks Hepworth made as part of that episode, it's no doubt important for Canadians to be aware of just who is communicating to farmers producing food for Canada and the world's food supply, and what message they're likely receiving. Of course one of those questionable remarks made on that broadcast was Hepworth's outright dismissal of the University of Michigan study that I had introduced to him in a one-on-one interview at CropLife's 2007 annual conference. The study had demonstrated that organic models of food production can produce nearly as much if not more food than the heavily resource dependent conventional models which CropLife represents. Hepworth called the study "highly suspect" and having not read the study himself, he referred to a commentary that informed his opinion. That commentary was discovered to be from the Centre for Global Food Issues—an industry front group that receives financial support from CropLife itself and most of its member companies. In determining the credibility of the front group (aside from where they receive their funding), it was discovered that the director of the Center, Dennis Avery, was documented speaking at conferences around the world and announcing that research had demonstrated that organic agriculture produces substantially less food per acre than conventional models. Now when, at one of these conferences, Avery was questioned as to where he received his data, he refused to answer. And when forced to answer by the conference moderator, Avery indicated that his comment was in reference to only one study, from one country, and one crop being grown, and it was this that led him to proclaim that all organic models produces less than conventional. Now, needless to say, this is not an organization or an individual to trust. And so while the presence of Lorne Hepworth at the Western Canadian Wheat Growers 2009 Convention is one thing for Canadians to be well aware of, it might also come as a shock to learn that at the top of their list of speakers, was none other than Dennis Avery of the Center for Global Food Issues.

 

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JS: So clearly the Western Canadian Wheat Growers are relying on some pretty shoddy information, dare I say disgraceful information, from two organizations who purport to have the answers to solving world hunger. Certainly not a message to take lightly if it lacks any credible backing, and it's this that helps form the basis for today's broadcast as we seek to understand just why the industrial models of agriculture which are increasingly founded upon the principles of genetic engineering and the manipulation and corporate ownership of life forms, continues to receive support by farmers and farmer organizations.

 

What Deconstructing Dinner has come to understand, is that it in many cases, it appear to come down to communication: who's communicating the information, who's listening, and how much trust those who are listening place into the hands of the communicator. This question will be expanded upon today because the influence that these individuals and organizations can have on the food supply of North Americans and by extension the world is considerable. To highlight a case in point, it wasn't long after the Western Canadian Wheat Growers January convention that the association signed their name to a letter dated May 14th 2009 (the date of this very broadcast) titled "Wheat Biotechnology Commercialization—a Statement of Canadian, American and Australian Wheat Organizations." Now remember, genetically engineered wheat has not yet been approved anywhere in the world although the technology does exist. It was back in 2004 when Monsanto sought to commercialize their Roundup Ready wheat and failed due to overwhelming opposition from other farmer organizations. In the past year, however, there has been a renewed interest by groups who do support genetically engineered wheat and this letter captures this latest effort.

 

Signing their names to the letter were American organizations like the National Association of Wheat Growers, the U.S. Wheat Associates, and the North American Millers' Association. Canadian groups signing on were the Grain Growers of Canada, the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association and the Alberta Winter Wheat Producers Commission. Three Australian groups were also signatories.

 

Now the letter begins by stating, "In the interest of expressing support for more efficient, sustainable and profitable production of wheat around the world, the undersigned organizations have approved the following joint statement concerning commercialization of biotechnology in wheat."

 

The entire letter is linked to from the Deconstructing Dinner website, but of greatest interest are these statements:

 

The first, "Wheat is a vital food to all peoples of the world and we believe that by developing higher yielding better quality wheat varieties, we can better supply the world with wheat food products. One important tool to help feed the world into the future is biotechnology."

 

And the second statement of interest, "Over ten years of global experience with biotechnology has demonstrated a convincing record of safety and environmental benefits as well as quality and productivity gains."

 

Now those mentions of higher yields and greater productivity are the ones to pay attention to because in just a moment we'll hear from Dr. E. Ann Clark of the University of Guelph who has developed a strong presentation that demonstrates that the ongoing promises of higher yields and the so-called ability for biotech crops to address hunger and "feed the world" are not backed up with ample data. In fact Dr. Clark uses numbers generated by Canada's own Ministry of Agriculture and Agri-Food and the United States Department of Agriculture to demonstrate that such a proposition as it applies to some crops is not true at all.

 

Ann Clark is an Associate Professor in the Department of Plant Agriculture at the University of Guelph. She received a Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences and a Masters of Science in Agronomy both from the University of California at Davis. Ann then went on to earn a Ph.D. in Crop Production and Physiology from Iowa State University. Ann has most recently directed the creation of the University of Guelph's organic agriculture major, which, as we learned on a recent broadcast of Deconstructing Dinner was barely saved from elimination in April of this year and granted a 12-month extension. Indeed maintaining the program has proven to be difficult in light of their being virtually no public money in Canada devoted to organic research. As we learned, Canadian taxpayers are instead heavily invested in biotechnology research focusing on the genetic engineering and corporate control of lifeforms and by extension, corporate control of our food supply.

 

Ann is one of the most vocal and longstanding critics of genetic engineering and today her message is, quite simply, "enough is enough."

 

On May 10th Ann was invited by the Kootenay Local Agricultural Society to speak to farmers in the community of Tarrys, British Columbia. One of those talks focused on this issue of GMOs and Deconstructing Dinner recorded her presentation.

 

Dr. Ann Clark: I'm going to talk about GM crops. And I will try to make the argument that we've been at this long enough, this is not the way of the future, and we should be changing horses, trying a new way, a different way. I'm going to try and make the argument that biotechnology is an abject failure. A spectacular failure. Despite the fact that it's been widely adopted, I'm going to try and convince you that it is nonetheless a failed technology. It is a huge black hole for research funding.

 

What happened to the revolution?

 

We were promised a lot 30 years ago. Back in the ‘70s there was a huge dialogue, there were lots of promises made, we still hear lots of promises made about salt-tolerant tomatoes, and being able to fix nitrogen with corn, and all kinds of things. Whatever happened to those promises? And what in fact has been the legacy of this 30-year fixation with biotechnology? I will suggest to you that in fact, the legacy is we have transformed all of our agricultural departments from departments that actually did something useful to farmers, to departments that are focusing on molecular genetics and haven't done anything useful to farmers in a long time.

 

So, why is it a spectacular failure? How do I have the gall to say that, when such a large fraction of some crops is planted to biotech crops in North America? One issue is, it has been rejected globally. Nobody on the planet wants this. I can't remember the last time I saw a protest demonstration marching down the road demanding the right to eat genetically modified food. And it's not just us, it's not just polls where people say, "No, I don't want to eat genetically modified food"; entire countries have gone to extreme effort to place themselves in a way that they can control the movement of GM into their own countries, or not. And this is over the strenuous objections of Canada, the US, and other GM-growing countries. It's not a proud history, it's not a proud story.

 

I would also suggest that biotechnology has delivered remarkably little despite the amount of money that we have invested. Public money that has been invested, in biotechnology. How much money do you think Canada—public money, provincial and federal money, annually invests in promoting and developing biotechnology? Anybody want to guess? The figure I heard—this is an annual figure—was $700 million. $700 million, a year. And we've been doing this for decades. Is this where we should've been putting our money?

 

Hindsight's 20/20, you can look back and say, "Yeah, we made a mistake, we shouldn't be doing this," but we're still doing it! [laughter] Maybe it's time to actually look behind us and see the mistakes and think of something different.

 

Commercialized traits have failed to deliver on the promised benefits. What were we promised? We were promised yield, we were promised reduced biocide use, we could feed the world, save the soil. All kinds of promises were made: farmers were going to make money—that was going to be different. Did it actually happen? It hasn't happened. And we're not taking this seriously. Government is not looking at this and acknowledging the failures and stepping aside and looking for something else. This is one of the reasons I'm talking to you, I really would like to see people encouraging their governments to rigorously look at what has been done and consider another direction, because this thing is just not paying off.

 

Finally, I'm going to try to convince you that GM externalized burdens on everybody else, people who are not growing GM crops. The only way this technology can survive in the field is if government does not force the growers of the GM crops to absorb the burden of mitigation, preventing the flow of their genes out into other people's fields, contaminating them and causing them to be vulnerable to lawsuits and other problems. The only way that this works is if everybody else has to absorb these costs, and not the growers of the GM crops.

 

Okay, the Biosafety Protocol, you may remember this, was signed finally in the year 2000. It followed on from the 1992 Rio Convention on Biodiversity. This was something that Canada was a very proud signatory of, it was meant to protect the planet's biodiversity specifically from GMOs. That was what it was signed for. A direct quote: "The protocol seeks to protect biological diversity from the potential risks posed by living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology." That's a direct quote. So this is not ambiguous, there was no question about what the purpose of the Biosafety Protocol was, which was to operationalize the intent of the Rio Convention on Biodiversity.

 

So, what has happened? Canada signed the Rio Convention in '92, and has since worked tirelessly together with the US and Australia and a few other GM grain-growing countries to obstruct the passage of the Biosafety Protocol, and now to do an end-run around it, to force countries to buy our grain even when they don't want to buy the grain. This is a really different perspective than what you would get from reading the Government of Canada websites about biotechnology. They portray Canada as a leader in biotechnology, as someone to be emulated by the rest of the world. In point of fact, what we are being seen as, is bullies. We are bullying the rest of the planet to buy products that they don't want to buy, and that's not a very attractive position.

 

Just to put some numbers to this, and you can look this up on the website like I did, 153 out of 196 countries have now ratified and put in force the Biosafety Protocol. You can see that we're in a distinct minority, both within the western Europe and others category, but overall. A really large number of countries want the right to regulate the movement of GM grain into their own countries, and we don't want them to have that right.

 

What have we actually delivered? All of these billions and billions and billions of dollars from the US, from Canada, from Australia—of public money, let alone the companies—what have we got as a result of it? Two traits: herbicide tolerance and Bt. And there are two kinds of genetically modified herbicide tolerance, Roundup Ready and Liberty Link. And Bt. Bt causes plants to synthesize an insecticidal protein, and there are different proteins that are selected for different organisms. They synthesize this protein in every cell, including the grain cell, the pollen cell, the stem cells, the flower, every cell of the plant synthesizes these pesticides, which is what they are, 24/7 for the whole season. We have two traits, herbicide tolerance and Bt, in four crops, soybeans, corn, cotton, and canola, in six countries. US has 55%; Argentina, 19%; Brazil, 10%; Canada, 6%; China, 4%; and Paraguay, 2%. That combination of two traits in four crops in six countries is 99% of all the land sown to GM on the planet.

 

Nobody wants this stuff. Contrary to what you've been told, we simply must have this to feed the world, people are going to starve if you obstruct this, you should go to jail because you're killing people, on and on and on. Nobody wants this! This could have taken off all over the planet if it actually worked, if people actually trusted it, and if they wanted it. But they don't. And there's no clearer indication than these numbers. Whatever happened to nitrogen-fixing corn? Whatever happened to salt-tolerant tomatoes, that was all the rage from the University of Toronto a few years ago? Vitamin-enriched rice, that was going to stop all those children from becoming blind? Frost-tolerant strawberries that created all sorts of hysteria? Whatever happened to all those promises such that we got Bt and HT and that's it? After 30 years? When you look at the bigger picture like this, it's hard not to conclude that this thing is a spectacular failure, given all the money that has gone into it and given the complete transformation of academia in Canada, the US, European countries, Japan, to molecular genetics to pursue this phantom. It's not happening. What is happening is they're discovering that their understanding of gene function is woefully out of touch with reality. It's way more complicated than they originally thought 30 years ago, such that getting stable expression of new genes in new hosts is proving to be much more difficult than they ever expected it to be. These particular traits worked, herbicide tolerance and Bt—herbicide tolerance being of course a priority because it means you have to buy the herbicide, that the same company makes the herbicide also owns the gene—so it's a cash cow for the companies.

 

JS: This is Deconstructing Dinner. You're listening to Dr. E. Ann Clark, an Associate Professor in the Department of Plant Agriculture at the University of Guelph. Ann was recorded on May 10th speaking in Tarrys, British Columbia.

 

As she proceeded into greater detail to demonstrate just why the genetic engineering of our food supply has been a "spectacular failure" she introduces one of the two technologies currently commercialized: Bt, a widely adopted technology for corn and cotton used across the globe. Ann questions whether Bt has lived up to its promised benefits for corn.

 

She demonstrates how the key promises made by industry and government have failed: promises such as increased yields, reduced use of biocides, feeding the world, saving the soil, farmers would make more money, and the list goes on.

 

AC: So has it achieved the promised benefits? Has it in fact increased yield, has it fed the world better, has it reduced biocide use, has it increased profit for farmers? Is there any evidence to support this? I'm not going to say too much about biocide use other than to note that a central problem—and this has nothing really to do with GM—is the gross overuse of Roundup on Roundup Ready crops, whether they're soybeans or corn or cotton or whatever they are—massive overuse has increased selection pressure for resistance to Roundup. And we now have 15 species that have Roundup-resistant biotypes. Make sure you're understanding, when I say 15 species, that means Species X has a biotype or more than one biotype that is resistant to Roundup; it doesn't mean the entire species is. It means the biotype that's present in some particular country or some particular region, it has resistance.

 

So we haven't reduced biocide use, in fact it's a ludicrous premise that you could reduce biocide use! The Bt, the target of Bt, is European corn borer, which is an insect that attacks corn or maize, as some people say. The problem is that now we don't use insecticides to control European corn borer, we never did. You can't use insecticides on European corn borer. It's very difficult to get it on at the right time to actually do anything. Almost all the insecticide we use on corn, is for corn rootworm, which is a different thing altogether. It's a different organism altogether. And the current Bts are ineffective against it. They're not targeting that one. So there's no possible way you could reduce insecticide use with something that targets European corn borer, because we don't use insecticide on European corn borer. It's insane. It's just insane.

 

JS: Now this is a rather fascinating piece of information because indeed industry has long insisted that genetically engineered Bt corn would help reduce the use of pesticides because the plant itself is producing a pesticide. Deconstructing Dinner was compelled to look into this promise of reduced pesticide use and, sure enough, even provincial ministries of agriculture communicate the ineffectiveness of pesticides on European Corn Borer—the target of Bt. According to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs, "Insecticides have generally not provided economic control of European Corn Borer in field corn." According to the New Brunswick Department of Agriculture, "Because the young larvae of European Corn Borer are present on the foliage for only a few days, the window for control with a bacterial or synthetic insecticide is quite small. Insecticides are no longer effective after the larva has entered the stem."

 

Now even AgCare—an Ontario group made up of 17 farm organizations and which is a known promoter of biotechnology—states on their website, "There has been relatively little use of insecticides for corn borer control in field corn in Ontario in the past."

 

And so despite what Ann Clark introduced as being a fallacious argument to suggest that genetically engineered Bt corn will reduce the use of insecticides, biotechnology proponents continue to communicate this message.

 

Doug Powell: Today we're going to show you how this corn ends up on your table, and the role that something like genetic engineering and some of the other technologies may have in producing this high-quality corn. When we talk about food safety, we talk about "farm to fork"; in this case we're actually talking about "lab to fork," because it begins in a lab. This corn is genetically engineered Bt sweetcorn. What it is, is scientists have found a single gene in a bacteria that's normally found in soil called Bacillus thuringienensis, hence the Bt. They put that gene in here, and what it does is control for corn borers. And what it means is much fewer sprays, in fact zero pesticide sprays on this corn.

 

JS: That's Doug Powell, an adjunct professor at the University of Guelph and an associate professor at Kansas State University. That clip was extracted from a YouTube video that he produced as part of his work at Kansas State. Doug Powell is the scientific director of what is called "the Food Safety Network," of which the Canadian branch calls itself "Canada's most comprehensive and trusted centre of information and research on food safety issues." Powell also heads up the International Food Safety Network through his work at Kansas State.

 

Powell has long been hired by industry and trade groups like CropLife Canada to communicate pro-biotech messages, and concern over the reliability of such messages can begin with that very clip we just listened to. It appears that Doug Powell does not even know how to pronounce the very technology he's promoting.

 

DP: ... a bacteria that's normally found in soil called Bacillus thuringienensis.

 

JS: Bt is actually pronounced "bacillus thuringiensis," not "thuringienensis." Now it may seem like a minor detail, but when Doug Powell has been used by industry on so many occasions to communicate the pro-genetic engineering message, it seems worth pointing out that the very technology being promoted cannot even be pronounced correctly. Doug Powell has in fact contributed information to AgCare, another aggressive communicator of agricultural information.

 

His work was also put into the spotlight following a study that was published in 2003 in the British Food Journal. According to the peer-reviewed paper, when shoppers in a Canadian farm store were confronted with an informed and unbiased choice between GM corn and non-GM corn, most consumers (69% of them) purchased the GM variety. Now putting aside that the study was funded by CropLife Canada and the Council for Biotechnology Information—an industry front group—the British Food Journal went on to award the paper with its Award of Excellence for the Most Outstanding Paper of 2004.

 

There's just one problem. The paper failed to point out the hand-written signs that were posted beside the two corn options. The Toronto Star's Stuart Laidlaw was invited to the press conference when the research was first announced, and he snapped a photograph of one of these signs located at the farm market located on the very farm where the corn was grown. Now we've posted this image on the Deconstructing Dinner website and you'll notice that written above the non-Bt corn the sign read, "Would You Eat Wormy Sweet Corn?." Certainly not a sign that would be found at any grocery store. Listed below the heading were the two pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers used to grow the corn. Now above the Bt-corn, a sign reading "Here's What Went into Producing Quality Sweet Corn." Listed below are just the herbicides and fertilizers, no pesticides. So clearly the pro-biotech farmer and pro-biotech researchers were seeking to influence the consumers with their perspective on the technology. Yet no mention of the wording of these signs—this word, "wormy," and "quality"—in the published research. Of course that resulted in a backlash of criticism including a letter published in a later edition of the journal by Professor Emeritus Joe Cummins of the University of Western Ontario, someone who has lent their voice to the show before. Doug Powell was also featured in that issue with a response to Cummins's critique. Now with no reason as to why, Powell insisted in his response that the signs would not have influenced the consumer. But nowhere does he deny that the signs were there during some of the time that the data was collected. These letters are linked to on the Deconstructing Dinner website.

 

The Toronto Star's Stuart Laidlaw later went on to write a book titled Secret Ingredients: The Brave New World of Industrial Farming, in which he includes the detailed story of his experience with Doug Powell's research. Now despite the 69% of customers who purchased the genetically modified corn at the farm, Laidlaw writes in his book that the choice by the farmers' customers to take home more than five thousand cobs of what was labelled as "wormy corn" rather than purchase what was labelled as "quality" Bt corn demonstrated some pretty deep misgivings about GM food.

 

Of course that conclusion, which is perhaps of greater interest than the seemingly coerced outcomes, was not mentioned.

 

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JS: More information on this study, including the original published paper itself, is linked to from the Deconstructing Dinner website at deconstructingdinner.ca, and posted under the May 14th 2009 episode.

 

You're tuned in to Deconstructing Dinner, a weekly syndicated radio show and Podcast produced at Kootenay Co-op Radio CJLY in Nelson, British Columbia. I'm Jon Steinman. This program is listener supported and if you listen to Deconstructing Dinner and like what you hear, please help support our work by generously donating through our website at deconstructingdinner.ca

 

Used as the foundation for today's broadcast is a talk we recorded on May 10th of Dr. E. Ann Clark—an Associate Professor in the Department of Plant Agriculture at the University of Guelph. Ann directs the school's small organic agriculture major that we featured on a recent episode of the show. She was invited by the Kootenay Local Agricultural Society to speak to farmers in the community of Tarrys, British Columbia where she sought to demonstrate that genetically modified foods are a "spectacular failure" and suggests that the estimated $700 million of public money invested into biotechnology research and promotion each year ignores these failures.

 

One of the most startling items shared by Ann during her presentation was on the supposed promise of increased yields that industry and GMO proponents use to promote the technology. It appears that data compiled by Canada's Ministry of Agriculture and Agri-Food and the United States Department of Agriculture has even communicated such failed promises.

 

AC: I want to be clear to state that there are new Bt types for corn that do in fact target corn rootworm, which is where most of the insecticide issues. They only just came out last year, they haven't worked very well, but they may at some point, in which case we could make the point that yes, they have reduced insecticide use. And it is only fair to say that yes, insecticide use has declined on cotton, from Bt cotton. So all of the numbers that you'll hear trumpeted about saving insecticides and all this stuff: it's on cotton. It's not on corn, it's not on canola, and it's not on soybeans.

 

Okay. Do GM crops in fact yield more? How could they? The trait that we're selecting for is herbicide tolerance and Bt. It's not yield. Yield is a very complex, multi-genic trait. Herbicide tolerance and Bt are single-gene traits. Complex traits that have 15 or 20 or 100 genes involved are very, very difficult to even imagine moving transgenically into a crop. So we are not breeding for yield with these GM traits. And be very clear that when we talk about a GM cultivar, there are tens of thousands of genes in corn—or tens of thousands of genes in soybean—around a cultivar only one of those genes is transgenic. All the rest of the tens of thousands of genes are from conventional plant breeding. So the traits like yield, or flower colour or height, or maturity, or standability, or any of the traits that are important in determining yield, they're all from conventional plant breeding. They aren't from GM. So yield is not a GM trait.

 

The only time that you could even make the argument is when the target of herbicide tolerance—in other words, weeds—or the target of Bt—European corn borer—is a significant threat to yield. In which case an organic farmer would look at that and say, "What have I done that opened up a niche that allowed the weeds or the European corn borer to proliferate to the point that they are a real pest, so much that the only way I can control them is with this technology?" And rather than controlling it with the technology, an organic farmer would say, "How can I close the niche? What have I done that made this happen? Is it a simple crop rotation that allowed spring vigorous weeds to grow, like corn-soybean-corn-soybean-corn-soybean-corn-soybean? That opens up a niche that selects for weeds able to grow in spring. European corn borer, what have I done that opens up a niche for that?" It overwinters in residue, crop residue. So what have we done, what have we at Guelph or elsewhere promoted aggressively that has, in fact, translated into European corn borer? Conservation tillage. We tell people, leave the stubble on the surface of the soil to protect the soil. Well, that's where the thing overwinters. So by promoting conservation tillage, we in fact created habitat for European corn borer, which now has become a problem worthy of this sort of intervention. We're creating these problems and then fixing them with transgenics.

 

Canadian data. Now, you always want to be thoughtful about where the numbers are coming from, and somebody spouts some figures. Everybody has an axe to grind, everybody has a vested interest in something. So you need to know where these come from. Canadian numbers I'm going to give you here come from Ag Canada. There was a 10-year retrospective published in a refereed journal article. So this is not Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth or anybody who has a vested interest in making GM look bad. If anything, the Canadian government has a vested interest in making it look good. So, what did they find in Canadian data?

 

GM soy reduces yield by 4%. It does not increase yield. It diminishes yield. And the reason why that is, is the Roundup Ready trait acts on a very major metabolic pathway, the shikimic acid pathway, and there are many outcomes from that pathway that are affected, and the manifestation is that it reduces yield. So it doesn't increase yield. You cannot make the argument that you simply must have Roundup Ready soybean to feed the planet, if it in fact decreases yield. Corn, there was no significant effect on yield from GM. Canola, there was only a significant effect of the herbicide tolerance trait when weeds were problematic, and that was 6 out of 30 trials that Ag Canada conducted itself.

 

In the US, this comes from USDA; again, the government has no vested interest in making this look bad. Soy had a 5% yield drag, similar to the one in Canada. Bt corn outyielded non-Bt corn only in the years when European corn borer was a serious problem—and the problem with that is, you don't know at the beginning of the year if it's going to be a problem or not. It occurs infrequently, sporadically, unpredictably, and in order to get the benefit of this trait, you have to plant it every year. So you have to plant it, and pay the extra premium to plant Bt corn, every year, on the chance that you might need it that year. Talk about suckers!

 

This paper got my attention. This was published by a soybean agronomist in 2004, and he had noted that if you plot national soybean yields, this is the mean national yield for soybeans for the whole US, and he split it statistically at the point that you see there. Prior to the release of GM soybean, which is mostly Roundup Ready soybean, yield was increasing at almost a half a bushel an acre a year. There's a lot of variation around those points, but that was the statistical line and that was the rate. From '72 to '93, half a bushel an acre a year. '95, which was when Roundup Ready soybean was released in the US—'96 in Canada—'95 to 2003, the line was flat. So you release GM soybeans, the rate of increase in soybeans flattens. That's kinda spooky. So it made me curious. I plotted the same thing for Ontario soybean yields. And the break point, again, is '96, rather than '95, because that's when it was released in Canada, and of course there wasn't that much Roundup Ready soy planted. But if you plot this out, 28 kilos a hectare a year, from '81 to '96, and then '96 to 2008, it diminishes to half that. 15 kilos per hectare per year. So it's very difficult to accept that argument, that this trait in any way increases yield. All of the evidence, in fact, is it decreases yield, or at worst it stabilizes yield.

 

This is another study, with Bt corn in Pennsylvania and Maryland. They did it over five locations in three years. So there are fifteen site years. They used five different Bt hybrids, five different companies participated in this, and for each one of those Bt hybrids, they planted also a non-Bt isoline. An isoline is the exact same genetics but without the Bt. So you have genetic A, genetic A, and one of them has Bt and the other one doesn't. They're isolines. So if there's any yield difference between isolines, it has to be because of the Bt gene or things that were affected by the Bt gene. Realize that when you transgenically insert a gene, any gene, into a new host, it unexpectedly, inadvertently, affects the expression of thousands of other genes. Unrelated genes. Things that have nothing to do with Bt.

 

JS: Ann Clark.

 

Now we will get to the results of that research in just a moment, but what stands as an important comment made there that seems to rarely receive sufficient attention are the risks associated with simply inserting one gene into the genetic makeup of a plant. As Ann indicated, there are a host of unpredictable changes that can occur when just one gene is changed, such as other genes expressing themselves differently. As Ann later went on to indicate, this was first demonstrated in Chicago when researchers inserted a herbicide tolerant trait into a common weed. The result? The weed went from being a self-pollinating plant to an open-pollinating one, and this outcome has nothing to do with the herbicide tolerant gene. Of course this unpredictability forms a pretty strong argument for those concerned with the human health and environmental risks of genetically engineered food, and not surprisingly, proponents of genetic engineering continue to insist that genetically engineering food is safe because it's "precise" and "scientific."

 

Here again is Ann Clark, continuing with the results of the Bt corn study.

 

AC: And what did they find? Bt significantly outyielded the non-Bt isolines, in 2/15 trials for the Agway hybrid, 6/15 for the Dekalb hybrid, 4/15 for Dow's hybrid, 3/15 for Syngenta, and for the Syngenta, the non-Bt outyielded the Bt in 2/15; for the Pioneer hybrid, Bt significantly outyielded non-Bt 0/15 and in fact 1/15 times the non-Bt outyielded the Bt isoline. So out of those 75 contrasts, the Bt would have made you more yield only 20% of the time. 15/75. And there were occasions where of those 75 contrasts, the opposite would have been true. And when I say greater or lesser, that's statistically significantly. So these are not just arithmetic differences. But in order to capitalize on this, the years that you happen to need it, you would have to have bought it 100% of the time. You're out of luck the other 80% of the time.

 

JS: This is Deconstructing Dinner.

 

At the beginning of the show we posed the question, "Why is it that with such overwhelming data, this clear need for the precautionary principle and the absolute disinformation communicated by industry and their supporters, that there are still farmers who continue to purchase the product and support the technology?" Well, one reason for such a circumstance was identified earlier, taking a closer look at the questionable lineup of speakers communicating to the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association at their annual convention. But where else are Canadian farmers receiving their information? Well, the largest agricultural publication in the country is the Western Producer, distributing over 60,000 copies every week. And with Deconstructing Dinner having critically approached this topic of genetic engineering ever since we first went on the air, we chose to become a subscriber to the Western Producer back in November 2008, in order to pay closer attention to the information Canadian farmers are receiving. And in a very short time, it's become quite clear that not only is the publication in favour of genetically engineering the food supply, but communicates the same type of disinformation that Deconstructing Dinner has for so long sought to uncover and expose. Now we will be spending more time on a future episode looking in greater detail into the content found within the pages of the Western Producer, but here's a piece that certainly caught our attention, and it was an editorial found in the March 19th edition, authored by the newspaper's editors. The editorial was titled "GM Makes Strides With Acceptance," and it refers to an industry-funded report that concluded that the planting of genetically modified crops worldwide has increased. The editors go on to conclude that this increase in plantings worldwide marks a "diminishing of the political pandering to fear represented by blanket rejections of GM crops." In addition to this conclusion made by the editors, they also conclude, as seen in the title, that increased plantings of GM crops worldwide signals increasing acceptance of them. But what the editors fail to recognize, and what Canadian farmers are not being told, is how the industry has very strategically structured itself in such a way that an environment has been created where little choice even remains as to what farmers purchase. So instead of it being a climate of "acceptance," it appears that instead, there is now more a climate of "it's the GM way or the highway."

 

Here's Ann Clark.

 

AC: There's one thing that ag biotech has done very, very successfully, and that is it has totally consolidated control of the seed trade into very few hands. It's important to recognize that because of this consolidation, this was an essential prerequisite to this happening, they are able to decide which genetics they will release with and without genetically modified traits. So if you have excellent yield, excellent standability, excellent characteristics of kernel strength or whatever it is you're looking at, you can choose to release those genetics only if fitted with a GM trait or not. Whether you need the trait or not. So if you're a farmer and you want to get this excellent new genetics, all of which comes from conventional plant breeding, the only way you can access it—this is directly because they own the whole trade—the only way you can get those new genetics is if you buy it with a GM trait. Or more than one.

 

And that's exactly what has happened. By 2007, over half of the seed trade, or 64%, almost 2/3 of the proprietary seed trade, is controlled by just ten companies. Monsanto alone controls 33% of the global trade and more than 20% of the global proprietary seed trade. So, huge power is concentrated in the hands of very few companies, and they decide whether you're going to ever see conventional good genetics with or without a genetically-modified trait in it. They can only do this because they own the whole thing.

 

Is this actually true? Are they actually using this approach to prevent people from accessing good genetics? I was interested to read in the Ag Canada publication that 95% of western Canadian canola is herbicide tolerant, but as of 2006, farmers had only a choice of one out of 49 varieties to choose from that was not herbicide-tolerant. I have to say, with canola, you'd be an idiot to plant a non-genetically-modified canola anyway, because it's 35% outcrossing and there's absolutely no way you can isolate your field from contamination. So when you hear people say, "Oh, this is such a great success, 95% of Canadian canola, blah blah blah"—why is that? Is it because it outperforms everything else, or is it because in order to get access to the outperforming stuff, you can only get it if you buy their stuff? That's essentially what has happened.

 

JS: Now perhaps the editors of The Western Producer have not yet come to understand this structure of the global seed industry and the strategies they use, or perhaps they don't believe such an analysis as that presented by Ann Clark. But another reason the editors of the Western Producer might not communicate such opposing information is the overwhelming revenues that the publication generates from biotech advertising. No doubt that if such critical information was presented in the paper, their advertisers would understandably be upset.

 

Now to the Western Producer's credit, there was a sign of hope when on April 23rd they published similar findings to those presented by Ann Clark. This came in the form of a republished Reuters article which featured the results of an April 2009 report published by The Union of Concerned Scientists—a well known and vocal opponent of genetically engineered food. Using peer-reviewed research and studies throughout the report, the authors concluded that "despite 20 years of research and 13 years of commercialization, GM crops have failed to significantly increase crop yields." Instead, the report demonstrated that over the last 13 years, any increases in yields were due to traditional breeding and improved agronomy. Similar to the information presented by Ann Clark. But of course, as expected, the publishing of this Reuters article did not go unnoticed by their advertisers, and sure enough Monsanto Canada's Trish Jordan wrote a disgruntled letter to the editor asking how The Western Producer could possibly publish an article about a report created by known opponents of genetically engineered food. Of course Ms. Jordan failed to pose herself the same question, that is why would the Western Producer print a letter to the editor written by a known proponent of genetically engineered food, but that aside, we waited to see how the Western Producer would respond, if at all, given Monsanto is one of the publication's largest advertisers.

 

Well sure enough, their latest issue published on the date of this broadcast, May 14th, contained what amounted to an advertorial for agriculture giant Pioneer, a division of DuPont. Authored by Sean Pratt, the article was titled "Technology can Satisfy Food Needs." According to the article, Pratt had introduced the findings of the Failed Yields report to Pioneer's North American public relations manager, and he responded by saying that the conclusions of the report are "false." Instead, Pioneer's PR manager said that corn yields have increased "36 percent since the introduction of GM corn and soybean yields have risen 12 percent." There's of course just a few problem with his response. For one, The Western Producer does not indicate where this information came from (which the Failed Yields report does very well) and two, his comment does not in any way isolate the reason for any increases in yields. Instead, he's referring to corn and soy in general since GM was introduced, which was the very reason for the Failed Yields report, to isolate the influence of GM from traditional breeding and agronomy. The Western Producer failed to acknowledge this.

 

As for the position of the author of the article itself, well it's quite clear that Sean Pratt also believes that the reasons as to why so much GM is planted are not important. As he writes in the article, "80 percent of U.S. corn acres and 92 percent of the country's soybean plants are seeded to genetically modified varieties, which is all the proof needed to properly assess the yield boosting benefits of the crops." And so this is the disinformation that 60,000 readers, mostly Canadian farmers, are receiving.

 

In response to their March editorial Deconstructing Dinner did author a letter to the Western Producer last month, and that letter was never printed nor was a reply ever received. It's been over a month since we sent that letter and we'll now be posting that letter on the Deconstructing Dinner website under the May 14th 2009 episode.

 

soundbite

 

JS: To bring us to the end of today's show, we'll listen in on one last segment from our recording of Dr. E. Ann Clark of the University of Guelph. She poses a similar question to that alluded to in the Western Producer article—have farmers benefited from biotechnology? While the Western Producer seems convinced that they have and so does Pioneer because, well, farmers pay for it, it's planted everywhere, so it must be benefiting them.

 

As could be expected, Ann Clark disagrees.

 

AC: Has biotech benefitted Canadian farmers? This is not a negligible question. This is a pretty obvious question. You would think that a country that was spending that much money to develop and promote this technology would have surveyed their farmers to find out, did it work? Do you actually make more money? Does it increase yield? Does it make it easier to control weeds? I was quite shocked to find out that in fact there are no publicly available surveys of conventional farmers' response to this technology. The very first one ever done was published in 2008. This is by a pair of guys from Manitoba. They interviewed 370 western canola herbicide-tolerant farmers in 2003, and they asked them to rank the top ten benefits and the top ten risks with this technology.

 

It was interesting that out of the ten benefits, operating ease was the biggest one; that means it makes it a lot easier to control weeds, and it does make it a lot easier to control weeds when you can spray any time and kill things, you don't have to worry about the window of time to apply it and all the usual things. Revenue and yield, yield and revenue, ranked sixth and tenth. So they were not using this technology for yield. They were not using this technology because of greater profit. They were using it because it dumbs down the process of controlling weeds. It makes it very easy to control weeds, relative to the alternatives.

 

So that was the primary advantage that they perceived. This is farmer-perceived, now, not researchers. The greatest risks that they perceived were the loss of market because nobody wants to buy it; loss of rights, under the technology use agreement, which you're familiar with; higher cost of the seed; and risk of lawsuits. These were the kinds of things that farmers worried about even though they had bought this technology and were using this technology.

 

The final point I want to make is that this is a technology that can only exist at the expense of everybody else, and with a government that allows this to happen. This is not happening this way in Europe, for example. Genetically modified crops are an uncontainable technology. You cannot contain this to within your field. Nobody can contain it. This has been widely published; everybody acknowledges this now. I want you to acknowledge or at least think about this: right now, the only people who take it in the neck, because this thing is uncontainable, are farmers. Farmers take it in the neck because they can't control weeds the way they want to do it, and because it makes them vulnerable to suit by Monsanto, similar to what happened at Schmeiser. The people who are really in trouble with this are seed-savers, which is what Percy Schmeiser was. But what about if the genes that move are pharmaceutical genes? Or plastics? Or industrial chemicals? Or new and improved ethanol-type corn that has different enzymes in it? All these different traits—if this stuff can move with herbicide tolerance, it can certainly move with everything else. If that stuff ever does get into the marketplace, what's it gonna do? It's going to effect everybody. This is a huge burden that has been imposed on everybody else so that this technology can continue.

 

JS: Dr. E. Ann Clark, recorded on May 10th 2009 speaking at an event hosted by the Kootenay Local Agricultural Society. Ann is an Associate Professor in the Department of Plant Agriculture at the University of Guelph. More information on her work will be linked to from the Deconstructing Dinner website and the May 14th 2009 episode. You'll also find a link to the report out of Manitoba that she referred to.

 

ending theme

 

JS: That was this week's edition of Deconstructing Dinner, produced and recorded at Nelson, British Columbia's Kootenay Co-op Radio. I've been your host, Jon Steinman. I thank my technical assistant, John Ryan.

 

The theme music for Deconstructing Dinner was courtesy of Nelson-area resident Adham Shaikh.

 

This radio show is provided free of charge to campus/community radio stations across the country, and relies on financial support from you, the listener. Support for the program can be donated through our website at deconstructingdinner.ca, or by dialing 250-352-9600.


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