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Mixing Math And Science

This quote attributed to Albert Einstein underscores the risks of mixing math with science. The two go hand in hand for practical analytical purposes, but whereas one relies on absolute proof through repeatable patterns, the other is based on accumulating empirical evidence.

In other words, in order for a mathematical equation to be accepted as a fact, it must be proven beyond doubt. Science is more fluid; it can change as more evidence surfaces.

For example, what we knew about genetically modified crops a decade ago is different from what we know today, which is why the notion of “doing the math” with market-impact assessments of new technology unleashed a verbal volcanic eruption of Icelandic proportions last week.

The sky did not cave in when Parliament gave second reading to Bill C-474 put forward by NDP MP Alex Atamanenko last week – although anyone reading through the hastily drafted press releases put out by CropLife Canada, the seed trade and some commodity groups could be forgiven for thinking it had.

Judging from the rhetoric, innovation in seed will come screeching to a halt and farmers will lose the farm if this bill gets the nod.

“Any further advancement of this bill, which introduces subjective considerations into the regulatory approval process for new GM seeds, will put agricultural innovation and the livelihood of Canadian farmers at risk,” the Canadian Canola Growers Association says.

If passed, the bill will amend Seeds Act Regulations to require an analysis of potential harm to export markets before the sale of any new genetically engineered seed is permitted.

In securing enough votes to pass second reading, the bill now goes to committee for a more thorough airing before facing Parliament again. It is not guaranteed to become law and it could return to the Commons in a very different form.

Attaining second reading, however, sets the stage for an important public discussion in Canada about a problem that is very real. Just ask Canada’s flax growers.

It must be noted that a legislated market-acceptance assessment process would not have spared the flax industry – or any other – from sloppy laboratory practices.

But neither would it have crushed the canola industry in its infancy, as alleged by the bill’s opponents.

The fact is, these assessments are already taking place internally. Hence the withdrawal of CDC Triffid flax and the delay of Roundup Ready wheat.

What a formalized process might have done – and this is what has the biotech industry running scared – is allowed the concerns of organic farmers to be heard prior to the unrestricted release of canola genetics that essentially eliminate that crop from their rotation, which by definition must not contain genetically modified material.

It might have prompted more discussion on how to keep those roving genes in the fields in which they were intended. Instead what happened was organic canola growers were virtually told to blame their customers for being too picky.

It’s a bit like putting a fast car that has no brakes on the road – and then blaming the people who get in its way.

Our experience with genetically modified crops so far has amply demonstrated their appeal to growers; it has also shown that there will be genetic leakage, both in the field and the handling system.

We have also learned, or at least we should have learned, that markets that say they don’t want GM crops, really don’t want GM crops.

The “science-based” assessments used to grant their approvals are in themselves somewhat subjective, due to the fact they are based on the knowledge that exists at that point in time.

With biotech wheat and alfalfa on the horizon, it would seem prudent in light of this to at least have an open discussion about the potential market effects of new technology.

A process designed to do just that was initiated six years ago when the commercialization of Roundup Ready wheat seemed imminent. An industry consortium was drafting a framework that would allow an assessment of market impact to be factored into the approval process.

It was a proposal that included the technology developer and stakeholders, and which allowed for a number of remedies, ranging from clearing the product for approval to recommending against its release. If there was a lack of consensus, the matter would be referred to arbitration.

The consortium evaporated when Roundup Ready wheat was voluntarily withdrawn.

The point is, a process like this need not tie regulators’ hands or prevent new technology from coming to market. Rather it can and should work in tandem with the science-based reviews to ensure its potential is realized without unacceptable collateral damage.

That’s not stifling innovation. That’s just good business. [email protected]

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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