Thu, Feb

Biotech Can Pose Problems for Organic Farmers

Recently, I met with a group of organic farmers in Saskatchewan who are at the frontlines in the battle that will determine the future of farming.

Recently, I met with a group of organic farmers in Saskatchewan who are at the frontlines in the battle that will determine the future of farming.



The farmers I talked to were spooked by the infamous Supreme Court decision that ruled that canola plants growing in the fields of Saskatchewan farmer, Percy Schmeiser, actually belonged to the biotechnology giant Monsanto.

This was because some of the plants were carrying genes resistant to Monsanto's pesticide, Roundup, even though Mr. Schmeiser had not purchased "Roundup-Ready" canola seed from the company.


Despite Mr. Schmeiser's claim that he had not deliberately planted the seeds and that they were somehow contaminating his fields, the court ruled that he had to pay the corporate giant for having them on his property.


For organic farmers, the implications are potentially devastating. It has been learned through the widespread planting of transgenic plants (commonly referred to as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs) that, despite buffer zones between them and conventional plants, transgenes readily travel considerable distances. Pollen is light and can be blown away or carried by unwitting agents like mammals, birds, or insects. Organic farmers are now vulnerable to contamination of their crops from transgenic material and thus could lose their organic status.


The problem for such farmers and opponents of biotechnology is that our federal and provincial governments seem unconcerned about the potential risks of transgenic crops and focus entirely on exploiting the benefits.

Agriculture Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and Health Canada are like cheerleaders encouraging the widespread growing of genetically engineered crops, approving the testing of new strains without subjecting them to critical scrutiny, and deliberately introducing the new plants into our food stream without fanfare or labels that would allow consumers to decide what to ingest.


For the average person, the claims and counterclaims about transgenic crops seem arcane and jargon laden, difficult for a lay person to assess. As a scientist, I am shocked at the ease with which past history and experience are forgotten when there seems to be an economic opportunity. As a geneticist, I am surprised that my peer group seems so reluctant to engage in genuine discussion about the claims being made for and against transgenic organisms.



First let me make my position clear. I once had the largest genetics lab in basic research in Canada. I was obsessed with research, and genetics consumed most of my waking hours, seven days a week. It was my passion and I was good at it.

By the 1970s, I had also embarked on a second career popularizing science and examining its implications. Genetics was growing explosively as new insights and technical manipulations enabled us to seek answers to questions that were once felt impossible to test. In my own lab, there was growing excitement and pressure to exploit the powerful analytic tools of genetic engineering.

But I was also acutely aware that this was a scientific revolution with enormous social, economic, and ethical questions that had to be addressed, and if I and my lab were actively engaged in using the new technology, how could I escape the real or perceived bias of vested interest?


In order to be a credible participant in the debate around biotechnology, I deliberately left an active career in research. I recognized that to examine the technology critically, I could not be directly immersed in it. 


That critical examination is what seems to be missing today in regards to regulation. When the government of Canada is charged with both promoting biotechnology and regulating it, you know there will be a conflict of interest. And I fear that farmers and consumers will be the ultimate losers.


Related Link:

Take the Nature Challenge and learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org The David Suzuki Foundation.

Source: David Suzuki Foundation