Sunday, 27 February 2011

This Could be Important

There has been no more interesting, or difficult, story to cover than the dreaded GMO's (you know.. genetically modified organisms).  One side promising a return to the Garden of Eden, the other, Apocalypse Now.  One side very button-downed and corporate, the other grass roots and passionate. Both sides (on the margins at least) telling untruths to make their case.

As a reporter you're supposed to provide balance and not take sides. You look for people who have strong opinions and care about the issue, and the end result for those viewers/readers who haven't already chosen sides, in my mind, is total confusion.   Thinking hard about GMO's can make your head hurt.

Agriculture started about 10,000 years ago, and at some point someone (probably a woman, maybe just the wind or birds and bees) ) wondered if crossing two varieties with excellent characteristics, would create something better.  That's genetic modification.

Now we have giant corporations with very smart people in white lab coats using powerful (if not very accurate) techniques to blast genes into  plant genomes to "help" nature create something better, at least different, certainly patentable and privately owned . (For all the billions spent, lawsuits, books written, and documentaries shot, it's amazing that mostly what's been created are grains and oilseeds that can survive the spraying of  a certain class of herbicide:.glyphosphate like Round-up). There are certainly many other products (including the Aquabounty salmon, the first GM animal)  that are at various stages of approval.

There is a fascinating branch of  plant variety development called Cis-Genesis.

It uses genetic engineering techniques , but within the same family of plants.  Are these GMO's as we've come to know/hate them, or is there room to broaden the definition of what's OK?  The media in my mind has drawn a very sharp line in the sand between GMO and non-GMO, and I think drawn it in the wrong place, mainly because it's a simpler story to tell.

Back to recent developments. Late last month Monsanto got approval to sell Round-up ready alfalfa in the United States (not in Canada yet).  I think this is a watershed moment.  The Round-up ready soybeans, canola, cotton, sugar beets, and so on. have all been row crops, planted and harvested in one year. Alfalfa has traditionally been a forage crop (hay, silage mixed with other grasses and grains) to feed livestock, and an important green manure to improve soil organic levels.  It's a perennial, planted one year and  continues to come up every spring. It's a plant that attracts bees and other pollinators,  so it's genes will move around, and  be with us forever.  That's what makes this development more important.

Certified organic farmers have stringent rules to follow to maintain their certified status and keep access to growing organic markets. They can't use GMO varieites, and obviously could have their crops "contaminated" by pollinators moving from one field to another.

This week another red flag came up that could have have enormous  implications. Don Huber is a respected plant scientist, and a well-known opponent of GMO technologies and products.  He's earned his opinions, and says he's found evidence of what he's calling microscopic pathogens in "Round-up ready" crops that he says are  a huge threat to the health of livestock, plants and humans.  It's the Round-up itself that he thinks is causing the problem, but obviously the development of Round-up ready crops using genetic engineering is what has lead to the huge spike, and widespread use of the herbicide.

And there's one more cautionary tale that appeared this week. Lawyers  for public interest groups are reminding farmers what's in the fine print of the Monsanto contract they sign to grow Round-up ready crops.  Any  liability (current and future)  is the responsibility of the farmer, not the company.  Link that with the long-term risk of Round-up ready alfalfa to neighbouring farms (who knows how important organic markets will be to PEI, and elsewhere in the future),  and farmers have even more to think about.

Canada has carved out its own path on GMO products in the past (think of  rBST, the Monsanto created dairy hormone which increases milk production).  Eugene Whelan and PEI's own Wayne Easter did a lot to keep it out of Canada, for now.  The dairy industry benefits from supply management which assures farmers a reasonable return and negates the need to crank more milk out of each cow.  I think it's time for another national discussion on Round-up ready alfalfa while Canada still has the chance to stop its approval.

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