Saskatchewan, Canada, December 30, 2003: In a recent
editorial in the Manitoba Co-operator, hog farmer Rolf Penner
contributes his two bits in support of GM crops. In doing
so, Penner attacks those who believe the creators and beneficiaries
of GM crops should be responsible for the damage they cause
to farmers who do not grow them.
Penner argues that GM crops are no different than non-GM.
They look, smell and taste the same and, he claims, pose no
health risks. Cross-contamination between GM and non-GM crops
produces changes that are really of no consequence. Penner
compares it to someone turning around in your driveway. Yes,
they were on your property without permission, but they did
you no harm.
As to the health issues, he says science has shown there
is no risk in consuming GM plants or seeds. This is untrue.
Science most certainly has not proven there is no risk to
eating GM crops since science has done virtually no direct
testing of that hypothesis.
The claim that GM foods are safe is based on the doctrine
of "substantial equivalence". This doctrine holds
that since GM foods appear to be the same as non-GM for a
certain set of characteristics, they are deemed to be the
same for purposes of regulation. The trouble with that view
is it depends on how comprehensive the set of characteristics
that are measured is.
For example, in 1989, a company call Showa Denko K.K. marketed
tryptophan in the United States that was produced by genetically
engineered bacteria. It was sold as a nutritional supplement.
Within three months of hitting the market, the tryptophan
made thousands of people ill, permanently disabled 1500 and
Since the measurements made on this product showed it was
as pure as conventional tryptophan, it had been deemed substantially
equivalent. The measurement did not look at the 0.01 percent
toxin that was produced by the bacteria, and that did all
Genetically engineered foods classified as substantially
equivalent are spared from extensive safety testing on the
assumption that they are no more dangerous than the corresponding
non-GM food. Thus, GM foods have not been subject to long
term animal or human testing before approval.
So, as I said, they are not proven to cause harm, (tryptophan
aside) but neither are they proven safe.
Penner then deals with the issue of market and customer resistance
by blaming organic growers for it. He quotes Alex Avery from
the Hudson Institute who says the "organic community"
and "radical environmentalists" are to blame for
customer resistance since they have created an environment
of fear by rejecting science. De facto, then, organic farmers
should not be compensated for damage from GM contamination
since they themselves are to blame for customers not wanting
It is a bold leap of logic, based on the claim that science,
and hence all scientists, are united in the position that
GM foods are harmless. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Yes, some scientists hold that position. Other scientists,
folks with Ph.D.'s in molecular biology and a range of other
fields, have a different opinion. (In Penner's and Avery's
analysis, though, anyone opposing GM foods automatically loses
their scientific credentials and becomes a lunatic fringe
organic farmer or a tree-hugging radical environmentalist.)
Were Alex Avery honest, he would say that the scientists
are divided and the science inconclusive. Consumers appear
to have judged the science they know and come to a certain
conclusion. Whether this conclusion is based on a preponderance
of scientific evidence, I do not know. Neither does Rolf Penner,
since he hasn't done an exhaustive search of the literature.
Nor, apparently, does Alex Avery, despite his grandiose claims.
The whole GM issue - substantial equivalence, consumer resistance,
gene patenting and responsibility for damage - reminds me
of a situation that could very well occur with livestock.
Suppose I have a herd of purebred Angus cattle and I market
my beef as a branded product. Because it is just so darn good
I get a premium for my beef.
Suppose my neighbor has a fence-crashing bull that continually
breaks through the fence to "cross-pollinate" with
my cows. By all measures, the beef from these cross-pollinated
calves is "substantially equivalent" to that of
my purebreds. But my customers will not pay the premium because
they want my branded product. Do I have any claim against
my neighbor if he fails to deal with his fence-busting bull?
Is it my job to put up a fence that will hold elephants so
my neighbor can have any type of bull he wants? Or is it his
What about fence-busting pollen, or gene transmission by
other means? If I sell Roundup Ready wheat, knowing that normal
farming practices will eventually spread it throughout all
varieties, (remember that many foundation seedstocks of canola
contain Roundup Ready genes) am I responsible for its wanderings?
Indeed, Monsanto goes beyond even that analogy. In the Percy
Schmeiser case, Monsanto claimed that all canola plants with
Roundup Ready genes belong to Monsanto, no matter where they
are growing or how they got there. And they won!
Will my neighbor be able to claim that all my calves bearing
the genes of his bull belong rightfully to him? It appears
he might be able to in Canada if he just patents one of his
After all, Monsanto only holds a patent on a gene, not on
the whole canola plant.
© Paul Beingessner, firstname.lastname@example.org
. The author is a columnist, transportation consultant and
third-generation farmer in Truax, Saskatchewan.