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There’s a problem in the country


November 30, 1999
By Ralph Pearce

The planting and seeding season is cause for such anticipation and optimism that, too often, those involved in the agri-food and agri-business sectors are challenged when it comes to spotting emerging issues taking shape beyond their horizons.

Yet there is one trend that is beginning to show itself – with some alarming signals – only its onset is little more than a sneak attack. In a May 20 story from the Daily Mail in the UK, a study carried out by “independent doctors” at the University of Sherbrooke (Quebec) Hospital, warned that 93 percent of pregnant women tested for Bt “toxins” were found to have “traces” of it in their blood, as did 80 percent of umbilical cords in these women. It was also stated that 69 percent of non-pregnant women tested were found with traces in their blood (see the story at www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-1388888/GM-food-toxins-blood-93-unborn-babies.html?ITO=1490). On the surface, this sounds like a profound and impactful study and a potential dagger to the seed and traits sector in agriculture.

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However, a closer read uncovers all that is conspicuous by its absence. For starters, it’s worth noting that Bt –Bacillus thuringiensis is a naturally occurring soil bacterium, and a protein from this organism has been the active ingredient in pesticides that have been the organic industry standard for decades. And that Bt is non-toxic to humans (roughly 10 years ago, a vegetable grower in the Orangeville, Ontario, region, sold Bt sweet corn. At first, sales of conventional sweet corn topped the Bt type by a margin of four to one; within five years, that trend was reversed).

None of these facts is ever mentioned in this story. The other complaint that I have is the use of the term “Bt toxin” in the article; it’s largely interchangeable with the term “Bt,” which I see as misinformed, if not out-and-out cowardly. Then again, we are talking about the mainstream – or “shamestream” – media doing the reporting, here.

Other important details lacking
There are some other major points that make this story painful to read, including the notation that only 30 pregnant women and 39 non-pregnant women participated in the study. And the obvious point, that this is a limited (translation: one-year) study. Readers of this magazine know full well of the less-reliable quality of one-year data (relative to two- or three-year data), not to mention how researchers loathe making any kind of recommendations or conclusions on the basis of one-year research.

There’s also no mention of the levels of “Bt toxins” found in the blood or the umbilical cords, nor is there a citation of scientific standards or levels that are dangerous or toxic to human health (keep in mind, even water has a lethal dose). And what was the theory or motivation behind this one-time study? Did the researchers elaborate on why this might be showing up, or what it means for the agri-food value chain? In short, there is no scientific basis for any part of this article; no standards, no theory or reasoning for the study, and no followup proposed for any subsequent research. In my books, that makes it inflammatory, superficial in its presentation and essentially useless when it comes to providing authoritative and relevant information.

Why this is significant
The reason I raise a red flag on this is that farmers and industry stakeholders need to prepare for a war that is coming – and soon. And the absolutely frightening part is that it is being organized on a very surreptitious level. Thus far, the attacks are not being “launched” directly at farming, and part of that comes from the fact that most in the anti-GM camp, as well as the shamestream media, have too little information on what modern farming entails.

So they effectively nibble around the edges with superficial data and comments that won’t make them sound and look completely stupid in an arena where they’re almost total strangers. Instead, the marshalling ground is taking place out of sight of farming, and is therefore out of mind. Recently, a crop advisor sent me a circular, detailing an online course, courtesy of an organization billed as the Institute of Responsible Technology, and speaker training with the institute’s Jeffrey Smith. For just $80 per person (or $140 per couple), Mr. Smith (an international best-selling author and filmmaker, no less), will teach participants “how to speak about genetically modified organisms and to organize effective activism on the issue.”

Among the topics of discussion, are the “five components of a GMO presentation, and the studies, quotes, statistics and concepts to convey each.” Mr. Smith will even teach you how to facilitate an “activist circle.” I can’t help but think of an “activist circle” in much the same way I would a “sleeper cell.” At its worst, it smacks of cowardice, and a pledge that almost states, “We won’t learn about the scientific principles of genetic modification and convey our thoughts in a relevant and accountable manner. Instead, we’ll resort to using innuendo and misinformation to carry our message.” There are other examples of this, as well, including reports and editorials in the Globe and Mail about “taking food out of the mouths of consumers” by turning corn into ethanol, a 2008 “Health” story in Maclean’s, titled “Will soy make my son gay?” and a 2009 Toronto Star feature, “Where they grow our junk food.” If you want more “fodder from the foolish,” let me know; I have plenty!

What’s in order?
Years ago, an agriculture ministry official here in Ontario told me that agriculture across Canada needs a unified office of communications, much the same as that which the oil industry employs. It is not the “mouthpiece” of the industry, as much as it is an informed and balanced voice that represents the industry as a whole, not as a company structure. Agriculture is in need of the same type of communications agency. On their own, the seed and chemical companies, grower organizations, independent agencies and ministries have a wealth of communications representatives. But their jobs are geared more to representing their own group’s interests, not answering the misguided prattling of a society (and its reflective media) that no longer understands or appreciates agriculture.

Even my job, there isn’t time to try to undo the litany of lies and constant streaming of misinformation that now pollutes the internet and its associated “blogosphere.” Stories such as the one from the UK Daily Mail and the online course of Mr. Smith’s are just tip-of-the-iceberg symptoms: symptoms of an illness that could have serious repercussions, not just on row-crop agriculture, but on livestock farming and the fruit and vegetable sector and the future of applications from what I’ll call industrial-level biotechnology. It’s time to gird our armour, folks, because the battle lines are being drawn, if they haven’t been drawn already.

We need an independent, well-informed and balanced communications agency, ready to fend off attacks that are due to arrive from many different angles within the next few years. As agriculture continues to find its value statement, build new market niches, and expand the use of crops and residues, the need for balance and a united front will only increase. How it’s funded is a point of debate; if you rely on all of the companies involved in agriculture to pitch in $2000 or $3000 per year, then such an agency suffers the perception of being a mouthpiece. If it’s funded by the government, then it’s a burden on taxpayers.

Yet something must be done –and now. We don’t need a parliamentary inquiry – we need action. If not, then we run the risk of allowing a cancer-like growth to invade from outside of the agri-food/agri-business sector. And it will affect farming as much as does paving over arable land, limiting the use of herbicides or the growth of the middle class in China and India. The longer we choose to ignore it, the more it’s going to hurt farming – and ultimately everyone – when it finally lands on top of us.