North America called out of step with rest of world on GM food

Speakers list dangers at recent meeting Retired genetic scientist draws link between genetic modification and increase in autism, diabetes

The dangers of genetically modified food were examined Dec. 13 at one of the last stops on a month-long British Columbia and Alberta lecture tour organized by GE-Free BC.

Speakers Thierry Vrain, a retired genetic scientist formerly with Agriculture Canada, and Shiv Chopra, a former Health Canada scientist fired in 2004, told a Lethbridge meeting that GM food, particularly that embodied in Roundup Ready crops, are dangerous and North Americans have not been told the truth about them.

“In North America we are in a biotech bubble,” said Vrain.

“The studies that we see in North America are paid for mostly by the biotech industry, and they basically all say everything is perfectly safe, everything is normal. The research done outside of North America, mostly outside of North America, tells another story.”

Vrain cited several European studies that he said proved GM food is dangerous. Among them was the Gilles Seralini study, recently retracted by the scientific journal in which it was published, that suggested Roundup and Roundup Ready corn caused tumours and death in rats.

“It’s a very common pattern over the last 10 or 15 years,” Vrain said.

“All if not most of the scientists who have published studies showing that there is something alarming, something that should be of concern, have been also heavily criticized and vilified.”

He drew parallels between the commercialization of GM crops and rising rates of autism and diabetes in the American population, and addressed several claims by the biotechnology industry that defends GM development and use.

Among those is that plants have been evolving since the beginning of time and that genetic modification is an extension of that process.

Vrain said natural evolution occurs by vertical transfer of genes through crossbreeding and sexual reproduction. GM is done through direct gene transfer, which plants can’t do on their own.

“So if you hear that we have been modifying our plants for 10,000 years and this is nothing new, I think it’s confusing.”

He also disputed the claim that GM crops developed to withstand herbicides have reduced chemical use. Vrain said that might have been true in the early years of Roundup Ready crops and others of similar ilk, but then Roundup use “shot through the roof.”

He recounted the development of weeds that are resistant to glyphosate, which he said biotechnology and chemical companies expected.

“Of course the company knew that it was coming and they’ve had many years to create the next generation,” he said.

“We now have 2,4-D resistant corn and soy, so 2,4-D is going to replace Roundup in the next 10 to 20 years.”

Vrain said biotechnology has not increased crop yields, which has never been its purpose, so claims of its necessity in feeding a growing global population are false.

As for the claim that no one has ever been made ill from eating GM food, Vrain disagreed.

“The biotech industry tells us that millions of people have eaten trillions of meals containing GE ingredients in the last 18 years and nobody has ever been taken ill and nobody has ever been harmed,” he said.

“This is the most unscientific statement that you will ever hear. It sounds very reassuring, but there is no science to it.”

Mark Benson of Harvest Haven, an organic farm and market garden near Lethbridge, said Vrain’s remarks held no surprises.

“The evidence is just overwhelming as to the human health harm connected with GM foods, so there’s just no way that that truth can continue to be suppressed forever,” he said.

“At some point it’s going to overcome the ignorance and the industry (sponsorship) of, really, propaganda.”

Modern farming technology and the race toward cheaper and more plentiful crops have damaged the natural biological soil systems, he added.

“We’re dealing with something so utterly complex and perfect and balanced, and then we just very presumptuously and arrogantly impose on it with our chemical inputs and now the ultimate presumption of tinkering with the building blocks of life without having any idea where its going,” he said.

“We can feed a hungry world organically, but the knowledge that’s there and the techniques for doing that are not being promoted or taught by anybody.”

Benson said consumers worried about GM technology should vote with their dollars by buying food produced using sustainable practices and fair wages and returns for workers and farmers.

“A revolution is in order. We have to reverse the false information that we’ve been given.”

In his presentation, Chopra recounted his objections to the introduction of bovine growth hormone, which has never been approved for use in Canada.

He said his “whistle blowing” on government and industry encouragement to approve the controversial drug eventually led to his termination from Health Canada.

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