Today we pull on our gum boots and wade — with some trepidation — into a story “ripped from the headlines”: the controversy surrounding genetic engineering/genetic modification (GE/GM) of plants, seeds and animals.
Last month the Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM), representing towns, cities, villages, regional districts and several First Nations, endorsed a resolution requesting the provincial government declare through legislation that the province of B.C. is a GE-free area with respect to all plant and animal species. No import, no export, no growing of plants and seeds containing genetically engineered DNA, and no raising of GE animals within B.C.
We applaud this decision; it is a step toward achieving food sovereignty. We are opposed to GE seeds, plants, and animals for a number of reasons, in addition to those expressed by the preamble to the UBCM resolution. Nor can we fathom equating, under patent law, a living thing (or part thereof) with a human invention like the tea bag.
The UBCM resolution’s preamble cites three arguments in its favour, arguments that apply at least as forcefully to wild plants and animals (including fish), as they do to cultivated crops and animals, and are of concern to fishers, hunters, farmers, gardeners, wild harvesters, and consumers:
1. That GE crops, through pollination, can disperse their pollen and genes indiscriminately and potentially contaminate non-GE crops; 2. A particular concern with the transfer of DNA between species and the potential unintended consequences, especially with animal species; and 3. As Vancouver Island and associated B.C. coastal communities are isolated from other agricultural areas in British Columbia [and the rest of the world], contamination by GE organisms can possibly and practically be avoided, enabling local gardeners and farmers to provide organic production, to help maintain long-term sustainability, and to foster a living seed bank.
Genetic engineering is a term used to describe the process of recombinant DNA. With the technology of recombinant DNA, scientists can change plants or animals at the molecular level by inserting genes or DNA segments from other organisms. Genes are the units made up of DNA molecules inside a cell that control how living organisms inherit features from their ancestors. The process of genetic engineering enables the direct transfer of genes between different species or kingdoms that would not breed in nature; for example, bacteria genes into corn or Atlantic salmon engineered with a growth hormone-regulating gene from a Pacific Chinook salmon and genetic material from ocean pout.
In 2010 Canada was the world’s fifth-largest producer of GE crops, primarily corn, soybean, sugar beets and canola/rapeseed. On the Canadian GE horizon: Atlantic salmon, alfalfa, and apples. GE foods imported to Canada include cotton seed oil, papaya, squash, and milk products. We don’t want to eat or buy GE organisms, but how can we avoid them?
In 2006, and again in 2009, the UBCM requested the federal government to label GE organisms, but to date they are not labelled, though the shelves are filled with them. Left to our own devices, we grow, buy and eat certified organic when we can, as GE is not allowed in organic production. At the supermarket, we are aware that processed foods may contain, or have been fed, GE ingredients, for example corn flakes, corn chips, cornstarch, corn syrup, corn oil and other corn ingredients; sweeteners like glucose and fructose; eggs, milk and meat from animals fed GE feed; cotton seed vegetable oil in processed foods such as potato chips; sugar from sugar beets; canola oil, soy oil, soy protein, soy lecithin, tofu, soy beverages, soy puddings; imported milk solids and powder, frozen desserts with dairy, and mixed drinks with milk ingredients.
Dawn Moorhead and David Lang are longtime practitioners of organic agriculture. They welcome your comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org