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May 28, 2009

Deconstructing Dinner


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

Canadians invest a substantial amount of public money into the development and promotion of genetically engineered crops. What have we received in return?


Jon Steinman


The push is on once again by groups advocating for the continued development and commercialization of genetically engineered wheat.


In a letter dated May 14 signed by nine farmer organizations in three countries, the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association, among others, are demanding that farmers receive the same supposed benefits that other farmers who grow canola, soy, cotton and corn have been receiving from biotechnology for almost fifteen years.


"We believe that by developing higher yielding better quality wheat varieties we can better supply the world with wheat food products," states the letter.


But are the promises of yield made by industry and government backed up with sufficient evidence? Dr. E. Ann Clark of the University of Guelph thinks not.


Clark is an Associate Professor in the Department of Plant Agriculture and a coordinator of the Organic Agriculture degree program. Having worked at the university ever since genetically engineered organisms first made their way into the food system, Clark has developed a solid understanding of the technology in light of the very concentrated focus of biotechnology research underway on campus.


"What happened to the 'revolution'," asked Clark to an audience of farmers in Tarrys, British Columbia on May 10. "We were promised a lot thirty years ago," she added. "Yields, reduced biocide use, feeding the world, saving the soil, farmers were going to make money. This hasn't happened." Instead, Clark referred to the introduction of these foods into the global food supply as an "abject" and "spectacular failure".


According to Clark, Canadians invest approximately $700 million every year in the development and promotion of biotech crops. So what have Canadians received in return? "Two traits," responded Clark - "Bt and HT in four crops in six countries."


Bt (Bacillus Thuringiensis) refers to the insertion of a gene into corn and cotton that directs the plant to produce its own pesticide (Bt). HT on the other hand stands for Herbicide Tolerance; a trait that permits a field to be sprayed with herbicides, killing all plants except for the genetically manipulated crops, which, remain standing.


In a recent issue of The Western Producer - Canada's largest agricultural periodical distributed weekly to 60,000+ farmers across western Canada; Sean Pratt authored an article titled, "Technology can satisfy food needs: Pioneer." The publication is a well known promoter of the yield promises of biotechnology. According to the North American public relations manager of Pioneer (a division of DuPont), "corn yields have increased 36 percent since the introduction of GM corn and soybean yields have risen 12 percent." Yield benefits are common strategic messages used relentlessly by industry. There is on the other hand one problem; there are NO commercialized technologies on the market engineered to increase yields! So the statement is quite misleading. However, to back up such promises, proponents of biotech crops argue that the Bt and HT varieties prevent crop losses to pests and weeds and thereby yields increase. Hmm. Quite a roundabout way to make a promise!


So is this true? Do yields increase with biotechnology?


Dr. Clark moved on to a slide she prepared using data compiled by Canada's own Ministry of Agriculture and Agri-Food.


Despite the ministry's clear promotional role of anything biotech, a ten-year retrospective study that they authored and published in 2007 in a refereed journal demonstrated how genetically modified soy actually leads to a 4% reduction in yields. "The [GE] trait acts on a metabolic pathway and the outcome is reduced yield," indicated Clark as to the reason for the descreased yields.


This 'outcome' strengthens the ongoing concerns by eaters across the globe that manipulating just one gene in a lifeform can produce unpredictable changes in the genetic makeup of the resulting plant. While currently commercialized GE crops maintain just one manipulated gene, there are tens of thousands of other genes within any given plant variety.


Clark pointed to the first instance of when these unpredictable changes were discovered. In a study published in 1998 out of the University of Chicago, researchers inserted a HT trait into a common weed. The result? The weed went from being a self-pollinating plant to an open-pollinating one, thereby concluding that changing one gene for herbicide tolerance can affect other genes in the plant unrelated to the herbicide tolerant trait. Despite such research, the May 14 trilateral statement from wheat producers insisted, "Biotechnology is a proven technique to deploy traits of interest with a high degree of precision in agricultural crops."


It appears those who signed the letter are unaware of what has actually been demonstrated on the ground.


"What is happening is that their understanding of gene function is woefully out of touch with reality," said Clark. "It's way more complicated than they originally thought thirty years ago; maintaining stable expression of new genes in new hosts."


Government is not looking at this and acknowledging the failures."


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