Canadian biologist Robert Wager says there is a desperate need for Canadian farmers to add their voices to the conversation about genetic engineering in food production.
“I like to quote Carl Sagan, as he said it quite well, ‘we have arranged a global situation where almost everything critically depends on science and technology. We have also arranged it so that almost no one understands the science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a little while but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.’ I would argue, in the case of genetically engineered crops, that is exactly where we are today,” said Wager, a faculty member in the department of biology at the Vancouver Island University, who received the 2014 CropLife Canada Grassroots award for his efforts to educate the public about GMOs.
Agriculture More Than Ever, an industry-driven partnership to foster a positive image for modern agriculture sponsored the Nov. 4 webinar in partnership with Farm Management Canada.
“If you look at the history of agriculture, even the last 50 or 60 years, there has been a huge advancement both in the amount and quality of food we produce, as well as a reduction in environmental impacts,” said Wager. “The reality is that genetic engineering is by far the most specific method we have ever used to change the DNA in our food and it is also the least disruptive breeding practice out of all the types of breeding that we do.”
Wager said GE crops are heavily tested on human health issues, nutritional, toxicology and compositional components before being commercialized.
“One of the things that people have often said is that GE crops represent a new allergenic potential and they could cause allergies in the public. Well, the reality is GE crops are the only crops that are tested for potential allergens before they are commercialized. No other type of crop breeding even looks at this aspect,” said Wager. “To date, there has not been a single documented case of an allergenic response to a GE crop or derived food, in the history of GE crops.”
Wager said there is a huge amount of testing done to commercialize GMOs in Canada, despite the common notion that they are untested or poorly tested.
Wager said the technology’s ability to create crops that are herbicide or pest resistant is highly beneficial to the environment, due to the reduction in the reliance on chemical protectants.
“If you can grow a crop that is able to protect itself, you can dramatically reduce the amount of broad-spectrum insecticides that are sprayed on your crop. Surely this should be a win for everyone. Unfortunately, it is not always seen that way.”
Looking for answers online
On a day-to-day basis the public is bombarded with information about food, food safety and food production from a number of different sources and for most, when a question about food production arises the Internet is their first resource.
“For too long, activist groups have had the only voice on the Internet and it has skewed public opinion,” said Wager, noting that activist groups spend billions every year to generate stories that prey on the public’s ignorance about food production.
“My question to you is, what are you going to do about it? You are now directly in front of this fear bus, it is coming directly at commercial agriculture and if you take the approach of not dealing with this directly, you will probably have the same outcome that the biotech industry has had by ignoring this situation.”
Wager urges Canadian farmers and industry members to speak up.
“The public has a huge information gap about how primary production works. They simply don’t understand. Part of this process will be explaining to them what you do and how you do it and how that relates to previous procedures. With that information, I think the public will very much move towards a more favourable opinion of GE crops.”
When speaking with members of the public, Wager recommends being as accurate and honest as possible.
“You know more about this technology than anybody. You know exactly why you use it, how it has benefited your farm, how it has benefited the food for the public. Just talk to the public, they really want to hear from you and you need to become a part of this conversation.”
If you are looking for more information on this topic, Wager recommends reading, Pandora’s Picnic Basket by Alan McHughen and Tomorrow’s Table by Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak. He also notes gmoanswers.com to be a reliable online resource.