Last month, Liberal party leader Michael Ignatieff weighed in on the GM labeling debate. In a nutshell, he said that he did not believe that genetically modified (GM) foods posed a risk to health [italics mine] and that GM labeling policy should be based on science, not politics and consumer fear. While I happen to agree his statement, for the most part, I also find that it does not address what I feel are key issues around GM crops. The concern over GM organisms (GMOs) goes far beyond potential health risks.
My main concerns are environmental and social. In general, GM crops have been developed to produce plants which are resistant to herbicides and pesticides (often specific ones), disease or climatic conditions; to have increased nutrition; or to ripen more quickly. I’m not really concerned about those last four (disease, climate, nutrition and ripening)–people have effectively been doing this kind of genetic selection for as long as we’ve practiced agriculture–however developing crops which are pesticide and herbicide resistant, that’s a different story.
I’m no expert, but here are the concerns as I understand them. This isn’t an area that I’ve looked into deeply, I’ve merely been paying attention to what I see in various levels of journalism. I’m relying mostly on memory for this article, so please feel free to share your thoughts with me in the comments section, especially if you have knowledge or recent studies to share!
- Monopoly/lack of choice. Often the plants are modified to be resistant to specific pesticides. That limits the farmer’s choice of which pesticides to use if they choose to use them. Furthermore, the seed and the pesticide are often created by the same company ( or family of companies), which seems a bit codependent to me.
- Resistance. Since few different types of pesticides or herbicides are being used, it’s quite likely that the ‘pests’ and weeds will eventually become resistant to them. In fact, this is already happening as many weeds have become resistant Roundup, the pesticide targeted by the first generation of pesticide-resistant GMO crops.
- Pollen travels. Pollen is blown along by the wind, carried by pollinating insects, and even carried on our clothes. There is no guarantee that pollen from a GM plant won’t land in other farmers’ fields and take root. This is of significant concern to organic farmers, who then risk loosing their organic certification due to accidental contamination, or farmers that export to the EU, which has banned GMOs. Organic canola is virtually unheard of in Canada because of contamination by GM seeds. A second case and point is the recent ‘GM flax crisis‘ that closed the lucrative European flax market to Canadian farmers.
- Harm to ‘non-target’ species. Research has yet to demonstrate that GM crops do not adversely impact species in surrounding ecosystems. In fact, at least one study seems to suggest otherwise. The most often cited is a study published in 1999 showing that the pollen from GM corn could kill monarch butterfly larvae.
- Economic impacts. This relates to ‘pollen travels’, in that accidental contamination can threaten organic certifications, but there are wider implications. For example, farmers may be forced to pay fines to the owner of the seed patent if GM-crops are found in their field. It doesn’t seem to matter if the crop were planted intentionally or if the seeds accidentally traveled onto their land.
For the record, I support mandatory labeling of GM foods and products containing ingredients made from GM crops and species. (It’s not just plants anymore folks.) I believe that consumers have the right to be informed. I also want to be able to choose not to support farms, businesses and products that are using GM seeds or crops. By saying that we don’t need mandatory labeling, the government is effectively limiting my ability to make this choice, since it’s not very likely that companies will voluntarily disclose this information.
If you want to avoid GM foods, you can look to see if the label indicates if the product is GM-free. Organic foods will be GM-free by definition. As well, Greenpeace has a consumer guide to help Canadians choose GM-free foods (presently being updated, but old one is still available).
What re your thoughts on GM crops? Do you support them or oppose them? What about labeling? Or perhaps the jury is still out for you.Photo credit: Laurent Renault, Creative Commons License.