Franken-sense or frankly nonsense? As the debate on genetically engineered foods heats up farmers, including some in Pemberton, are left holding the bag. By Andrew Mitchell As recently as two years ago, genetically engineered fruits, vegetables and grains were being hailed by the international community as a technological, environmental and social breakthrough. They were the answer to food shortages and malnutrition in the developing world, growing faster, packing more essential vitamins and nutrients and withstanding harsher climates than their garden variety cousins. More than a billion people on the planet are going hungry or are severely malnourished. Half a million children go blind every year due to vitamin A deficiencies. More than 400 million people suffer from iron deficiency anaemia. Genetically engineered foods were going to reduce the pesticide use and soil erosion associated with conventional farming through modified pest- and disease-resistant crops, saving millions of dollars in the process. GE crops were also going to boost production for struggling farmers, lower prices for consumers and set a world standard for quality. And then the fertilizer hit the fan. Nobody died. Nobody lied. A few people had allergic reactions to the modified produce, but otherwise, people seemed to be doing just fine consuming the genetically engineered foods that had been on the shelves since the mid 1990s. Which was exactly the problem. Nobody knew they were eating GE products until environmentalists and organic food producers made it an issue. People were horrified. Then Greenpeace asserted that the modified corn pollen from GE crops was threatening the American Monarch Butterfly, and that GE soybeans actually require more herbicide than conventional strains. It was later proven that the butterfly population increased and that the herbicide claim was based on a faulty interpretation of a 1999 study. But the damage had already been done. In Europe, the resulting backlash against GE foods resulted in crops being burned, boycotts threatened, imports of GE food restricted under a Jan. 24, 2000 international agreement, and companies were pressured into either discontinuing their use of GE ingredients or putting the GE information on the label. Opponents referred to GE products as "Frankenfoods," which contain active "Terminator genes." The reaction snowballed to North America, where environmental lobbies are campaigning to have GE products removed from the shelves. Companies that don't comply were told they were risking boycotts, and the Greenpeace website posted a list of products to stay away from. As a result, McDonald's, a company that has no problem using the beef from cattle injected with growth hormones, has announced that as of next year they will no longer batter and deep fry GE potatoes. McCain, a New Brunswick-based world-wide exporter of juices and processed, has told farmers and suppliers that they will no longer accept GE products. So has Kellogg's. Monsanto, a major GE researcher and distributor of seeds, posted a $250 million loss last year. And all across Canada, farmers are stuck with millions of dollars worth of government-approved crops that suddenly nobody wants to buy, including farmers in Pemberton. "I have a whole harvest of genetically engineered potatoes that would have sold a few months ago with no questions asked," says Jack Ronayne, head of the Pemberton Seed Growers Association. "There's been so much nonsense on this issue that I don't know if they're going to anywhere. I've already had orders cancelled in Alberta and Manitoba." At this point, only two species of GE potatoes are available for commercial planting in Canada, and dozens more are being tested. The approved stocks are NewLeaf Atlantic and Russet Burbank spuds, which are a product of Monsanto research. At the seed stage, scientists inserted two bacterial genes into the potatoes: the first provides resistance to specific pests, namely the Colorado Potato Beetle; the second provides resistance to specific diseases that can cause black spots and leaf rot. Both varieties also produce higher yields than ordinary tubers, and both have undergone rigorous testing under the auspices of the Canadian Plant Biotechnology Office to determine if they posed any danger to the local ecosystems, organisms in the soil or consumers. "Most of the people who oppose GE potatoes and other GE crops don't know what they're talking about," says Ronayne. "They haven't studied the issues, and they have not been given the proper scientific information by the media. All they know is the hysteria." According to Thomas DeGregori of the U.S. Institute of Economic Affairs, part of GE foods’ image problem stems from the way the issue was sensationalized with huge protests, negative publicity and the use of negative terminology such as "Frankenfoods." In his opinion, these are scare tactics based on emotional response, rather than the hard scientific evidence: "If anything clearly emerges from the debate about biotechnology, it is that when the veneer of pious rhetoric is stripped away from the anti-GM (genetically modified) food claims, their argument is simply one of selfishly seeking to impose their own New Age beliefs on society, whatever the costs to the rest of humanity may be," DeGregori says. Another part of the problem, says Ronayne, is the perception that Europeans are way ahead of North Americans when it comes to health issues. There is a growing suspicion among North American farmers that the Europeans, who were falling behind in GE research and production, are using the health issue to curb imports and increase prices at home. By getting rid of North American factory farm competition, they were able to return to more organic farming methods which produce lower yields and fetch higher prices at the grocery store. Ronayne says that most farmers he knows either grow GE foods or use them as feed for livestock. "Only a small part of the crops we grow are genetically modified. Farmers have to hedge their bets a bit by growing different kinds of crops, different kinds of the same crop and raising livestock. Otherwise it could be a rough year for one or the other, and you get left out in the cold." In addition to the approved GE canola, flax and potatoes growing in Pemberton, there are also a number of GE field trial sites — 14 since 1994. Although the nature and location of those tests is kept a secret to protect farmers from harassment, the secrecy is fuelling speculation. "I'd be very curious to find out exactly what types of crops are growing in Pemberton," says Dr. Joan Russow, the leader of the national Green Party. Since the beginning, she has been an outspoken opponent of GE foods in Canada. Her rationale: not enough scientific evidence is available at this time as to the long-term effects of GE foods on the environment and consumers. "They're really being cautious about letting on too much about this technology, which is perpetuating the illusion that scientifically engineered are somehow unsafe," Russo says. "We would like to address the issue with total transparency and clarity on their part, to get all the facts. "There was a scientist in Scotland who discovered that GE potatoes caused enlarged organs and weakened immune systems in lab rats. He lost his job as a result. In protest, about 20 of his colleagues repeated the experiment in their own labs, duplicating the results. Who knows what effect that type of potato could have on a human population. The public has a right to know." At this time, there are no provisions for GE labelling in Canada, according to the Plant Biotechnology Office, Plant Health and Production Division. The office says only that: "Plants in Canada are regulated on the basis of the traits expressed and not on the basis of the method used to introduce the traits. Plants with novel traits may be produced by conventional breeding, mutagensis or recombinant DNA techniques."