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GMO foods dangerous, pervasive, former federal scientists tell forum
Two former federal scientists told a large audience in Osoyoos last week that genetically engineered (GE) food is both dangerous and pervasive.
Dr. Thierry Vrain, a former head of biotechnology with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada at the Summerland Research Station and Dr. Shiv Chopra, a former Health Canada scientist fired for resisting approval of bovine growth hormone, brought their speaking tour to the Watermark Beach Resort Nov. 26.
The tour is supporting a campaign to have B.C. declared GE-Free.
While some in the audience of approximately 150 interested spectators admitted they knew little about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) before hearing the speakers, others said they are active in the organic food movement.
There were, however, no voices in support of biotechnology that night presenting the other side in what is becoming a polarized debate.
Alex Atamanenko, the MP for B.C. Southern Interior, was a sponsor of the meeting even though he couldn’t attend the Osoyoos meeting.
“The other side has constantly been saying something,” said Atamanenko, defending the decision to present only one side. “You see it in articles by organizations such as CropLife, which represent the biotech industry. The message that we’re getting, the spin, is that everything’s fine.”
Vrain and Chopra spoke for close to an hour each about what they see as environmental dangers and health risks of GMOs and the associated use of herbicides such as Monsanto’s Roundup.
“A lot of research has shown that really the genetic engineering technology as it is applied to agriculture today as fraud and dangerous,” said Vrain. “GMOs are almost all engineered to tolerate the herbicide Roundup.”
The main purpose of creating these Roundup-tolerant crops is to sell more of this chemical, he added.
Since genetically modified crops first were commercialized in 1996, their use has mushroomed so that now they take up 420 million acres around the globe, Vrain said. Almost all beet sugar is genetically modified, as is close to 90 per cent of corn and soybeans.
This means most processed foods contain GMOs, while meat and milk comes from animals that have eaten GMO crops sprayed with Roundup.
Canada doesn’t permit bovine growth hormone to be used in milk production, Chopra said, however, the U.S. does and many dairy products such as cheese come from U.S. sources.
Both speakers advised the audience that if they want to avoid GMOs, they should stick to organic foods, which are GMO free.
Vrain also said:
• Claims that genetic modification will allow for drought-resistant crops and more nutritious foods such as “Golden Rice” are a “distraction.” The real aim of GMOs is to sell chemicals;
• The process of genetically modifying plants uses an antibiotic-resistant gene. This will spread resistance of diseases to antibiotic drugs, posing a public health hazard;
• The spread of pollen from GMO plants threatens organic farmers, whose crops may be contaminated, leading to a loss of organic certification;
• As weeds develop a tolerance to Roundup, plants are being modified to resist the more dangerous older herbicide 2,4-D;
• Regulatory agencies don’t independently test the safety of GMO foods. Instead they rely on biotech companies to show the new crops are “substantially equivalent” to safe conventional crops.
Vrain and Chopra’s concerns about food safety are controversial and are disputed not only by biotech companies such as Monsanto, but also by government regulators such as Health Canada and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the U.S. as well as by the World Health Organization.
For GMO opponents, however, this simply reflects the close ties that biotech companies have with the regulators.
Vrain cites the example of Michael Taylor, who moved back and forth between senior positions at Monsanto and the FDA.
The night before the speaking tour came to Osoyoos, biotech advocate Rob Wager debated Vrain in a Kelowna forum on the Arctic Apple, an apple that has been genetically modified to keep it from turning brown and which may someday have an impact on the Okanagan fruit industry.
Wager teaches at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo and specializes in biotechnology. He dismisses Vrain’s arguments as being based on discredited science.
“It’s bad science that was in many cases designed to generate fear and not to educate,” Wager said in an interview. “I call it pseudo-science… I’ve gone head to head with him four or five times so I’m very familiar with the information he presents and because I’ve been involved in this area for research for close to 15 years no, I’m familiar with most of the alleged harm documentation.”
One of the most frightening studies that Vrain referred to in his talk last week was a study of rats fed genetically modified corn for two years.
This study, by French GMO opponent Gilles-Éric Séralini, found that the rats eating the GMO corn were more likely to develop tumours.
The study was, however, widely condemned by international scientists, who pointed out, among other flaws, that the type of rat used is highly prone to cancer over its lifespan under normal conditions.
Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) concluded that Séralini’s study had “significant shortcomings” and its statistical methods were “inappropriate.”
On Thursday, two days after Vrain’s Osoyoos talk, the journal that published the Séralini study issued a retraction, acknowledging the study was “inconclusive.”
The Séralini study, however, was not the only one Vrain cited to argue that GMO foods are dangerous. He also pointed to a study showing a steep increase in health problems such as autism since glyphosates, the main ingredient of Roundup, have been used.
“These are correlation studies, not causation studies,” Vrain acknowledged. “So these are not proof, but I find them alarming enough.”
He also disputed claims by the biotech industry that GMO crops reduce the use of herbicides and pesticides and increase yields.
Weeds have developed Roundup resistance, requiring the use of more chemicals, Vrain said. And while insect-resistant crops initially reduced pesticides, insects evolved that were resistant to these crops, he said.
Biotech proponent Wager, however, argues that pesticide use has been reduced by about 400 million pounds since the advent of GM crops in North America.
He acknowledges that Roundup-resistant weeds are a problem, but said this could be reduced with proper stewardship and crop rotation.
The tour is intended to support an effort to have B.C. declared GM free – a campaign that recently won support in a resolution passed by the Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM).
At least one participant at the Osoyoos forum, however, expressed disappointment that only three elected municipal representatives attended – Allan Patton, director of Area C and George Bush, director of Area B with the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen (RDOS), as well as Arlene Arlow, chair of FACTOS (Farm And Community Team Okanagan Similkameen), who was one of the organizers. Arlow is a municipal councillor in the Village of Keremeos.
Patton, an apple grower, won audience applause when he spoke passionately about the possibility that bees contaminated with pollen from the GMO Arctic Apple could affect his crop.
“I don’t like the idea that I don’t have a choice,” he said. “I get infected without my permission. It pisses me off.”
(A previous version of this story was revised to correct information about attendance by municipal representatives).