OWEN SOUND - The modified gene emperor has no clothes, University of Guelph crop scientist Ann Clark says.
Not only do genetically-modified corn and soybean varieties cost farmers more than conventionally-developed seeds, most involve a loss in yield over conventional varieties, she said in a talk Monday evening at the Anglican Parish Hall in Lion's Head. They also present enormous environmental risks either through the creation of natural resistance in plant pests or through inadvertent effects on non-target plants and animals, including humans, Clark said.
An associate professor in the University of Guelph's plant agriculture department, Clark is best known among farmers for her work with pasture. It's a realm of commercial agriculture relatively untouched by lab-managed genetics, although work has begun to strengthen winter hardiness in new varieties of the important forage legume, alfalfa.
Clark's current experimental work compares the economic returns of reseeded pasture with those from carefully managed, perennial pasture. She's betting on properly-managed, long-term pasture which, she maintains, is endlessly sustainable.
Clark has developed a more controversial interest lately, however, in genetically modified organisms, best known by the short-form, GMO. Her interest followed a challenge by the director of her university department, soybean breeder Dave Hume, to debate the subject at a seed growers convention.
Her research to prepare for that debate converted Clark's personal preference for traditional agricultural practices into a firm conviction that the science behind GMOs lags far behind the profit motive of its corporate sponsors.
TECHNOLOGY BEFORE SCIENCE
"The quality of the science is really shocking," Clark told a group of about 60 people at Monday's meeting, sponsored by three regional environmental groups. "This is a classic case of technology before science," she said. "This all detracts from the credibility of the scientists with those companies and the companies themselves and the governments that released it without doing the testing," she said of GMO crops now actively in use throughout Ontario.
"So, what do they do?" Clark said to farmers in her audience after attacking the performance of GMO plant varieties. "As far as I can tell, they transfer your money out of your pockets into somebody else's pocket."
Some estimates suggest that as much as 70 per cent of canola and 40 per cent of the corn grown in Ontario is genetically engineered, either to include resistance to European corn borer or to widely-used herbicides.
Corn borer resistance comes from toxins of Bacillus Thuringensis, but the widespread use of so-called "BT corn" threatens to accelerate the resistance of corn borer larvae themselves to the toxin and kill off benign related insects such as the Monarch Butterfly, she said.
As well, a recent research paper published in the prestigious journal, Science, indicates that current industry recommendations are wrong about delaying resistance among the insects by setting aside large areas of non-BT plants surrounding the altered crop, Clark said. She also expressed concern about genetic pollution, the contamination of nearby crops and wild plants by pollen movement from fields planted in genetically-engineered crops.
Recent resistance to GMO food products by European consumers creates an opportunity to slow down the dissemination of gene-engineering technology for proper testing, Clark told her audience. Some major buyers refuse GMO grain. Spain now requires growers and sellers of GMO crops to contribute to a US$100 million liability fund.
The British Medical Association and the Women's Institute in Great Britain have both called for a five year moratorium on the dissemination of altered crops. A recent survey of Canadian dietitians indicates ``increasing unwillingness'' to trust biotechnology proponents about the safety of their products, Clark said.
What bothers her most is that the corporate proponents of bio-tech agriculture and government regulators who have approved it lack answers to very basic questions about the effect of the innovations on natural cycles where practical farming really happens.
"We are dependent on the little bugs and microorganisms and stuff in the soil to a degree that you just can't comprehend," she said. "We're messing with that stuff and we don't even know how badly we're messing with it," Clark said.
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Last Updated on 7/3/99
By Karen Lutz