Who is Profiting from Transgenic Crops ?

Friday 28 November 2003, by Alex HILL

Photo : Greenpeace

A recent study by the British government shows that the use of genetically modified (GM) crops seriously degrade biodiversity on and around farms over a short period of time. In response, scientists, farmers and environmentalists across Canada are concerned that current the Canadian approval process is not taking these negative effects of GM crops into consideration, due to the minimal health and environmental testing performed before governmental approval.

According to the New Scientist Journal, "The results of the world’s largest ever trial of GM crops show that two out of the three tested - [canola] and sugar beet - had a worse impact on farmland wildlife than conventional crops." This has major implications for the use of GM crops in Canada, which has been criticised by scientists, farmers and environmental groups,

The crops in question are genetically modified to be resistant to certain pesticides. For example Monsanto’s Round-Up Ready™ canola has genetic resistance to the Round-Up™ pesticide, allowing this pesticide to be applied in greater quantities.. The British study indicates that the increased application of these chemicals to GM crops damage surrounding ecosystems, decreasing the number and diversity of local species important to pollinating plants and maintaining soil fertility.

A Blind-eye on Biodiversity

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is responsible for regulating the use of GM crops in Canada. According to their website, "Before [GM crops] may be authorized for unconfined release, they must be fully assessed for environmental safety. [They should not] have an immediate or long-term harmful effect on the environment or its biological diversity." When asked about the impact of the British study results on Canada’s approval mechanism, Barton Bilmer, spokesperson for the CFIA, responded, "we do not do research ourselves into biodiversiy affects of GM crops... but the British findings are not anything new to us."

One of the biggest questions related to the use of GM crops in Canada are the minimal requirements for safety testing before approval. Ann Clark, Agriculture Professor at Guelph University points out that, "100% of the data comes from the proprietor... no validation or experimentation is done by Canadian [government] regulatory [agencies]." Furthermore, there have been no studies done on the safety of GM crops to Human health, instead they are considered to be equivalent to their non GM relatives.

"There is no [statistical] standard.... on how to actually conduct the trials. This is left largely to the discretion of the proprietor. The requirements are so simplistic... that no GM submission has ever been rejected in Canada. The sole exception in the US was StarLink corn, which failed the allergenicity test but was nonetheless approved for livestock feed - and of course, got into the human food chain anyway," Clark added.

Currently 60% of Canadian canola production uses GM seeds. Furthermore, Agriculture Canada and Monsanto are co-sponsoring the development of GM wheat that will be resistant to specific pesticides, which is now awaiting approval despite Agriculture Canada’s own studies showing that the new variety encourages the spread of wheat fungi.

A Conflict of Interest?

The weak government testing protocol has been attributed to an apparent conflict of interest. Not only is Ottawa responsible for regulating the crops, it also plays a major role in their development. On top of this Ottawa has spent an estimated $10 million since 1999 to promote the safety and economic benefits of these crops through public education and direct mailing campaigns.

Bradford Duplisea an Ottawa-based independent researcher, gathers information on the link between the government regulation and funding of GM crops. He makes a link between the lax standards, and the government’s effort to develop and promote the crops, "You must keep promotion and regulation of industry under different roofs or you get disasters like bad blood and mad cow disease... we have to regulate in the interests of the public, not in the interests of the regulated."

With Ottawa’s help, the major seed production and distribution companies (such as Monsanto, Syngenta and Aventis) boast increased yield and profits for farmers using GM-crops. While the use of GM crops has been heralded as requiring fewer pesticide applications, in reality farmers are using significantly increased quantities of these expensive chemicals. Because the crops have resistance to one specific pesticide, as local pest resistance to this chemical increases, farmers are forced to apply ever increasing quantities, rather than use a range of solutions.

National Farmer’s Union in Saskatchewan points out that many farmers question the economic benefits of genetically modifying crops and livestock. While gross farm income tripled between 1974 and 2000, net farm income fell during that period, mostly due to increased expenditures on high-tech seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, purchased from the same companies now developing and marketing GM seeds.

Labelling of GM derived products has been proposed as a way for consumers to choose to support farmers using non-GM crops. Polls show that nearly 95% of Canadian consumers are in favour of labelling, but Ottawa has blocked any attempts to implement this. During the his election campaign, Jean Charest promised to implement GM labelling in Quebec, but there are fears that this promise will be broken or just forgotten.

There is now scientific proof that GM crops can have an extensive negative impact on ecosystem biodiversity. Duplisea suggests that, "Ottawa’s and Quebec’s willingness to ignore this makes one wonder in whose interest are they acting?"

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