Sunday, 27 March 2011

"Planet in Peril" Challenges Conservative Think-Tank on Food Regulation

by Larry Powell
I'd like to correct several statements in a recent article by Cam Dahl of the Frontier Centre for Public Policy that are either misleading, inaccurate, or both. In it, he insisted that Canada's current system of food regulation is "efficient, science-based and safe."

Sadly, history shows something quite different.

Almost five years ago, a bright, dedicated young graduate student at the University of Manitoba, Jennifer Magoon, (above)  found statistically significant links between the amount of farm pesticides used in certain regions of this province and the incidence of several health problems in infants. These included severe birth disorders including spina bifida, Down syndrome, cleft palate, lower birth weights, respiratory distress and jaundice. There were eye disorders, too, including retinal degeneration and cataracts. Magoon's findings were based on health records of tens of thousands of people living in rural Manitoba. Her research took 18-months to complete and was reviewed and approved by both her peers and superiors. 

Based on her findings, Ms. Magoon called for a reduction in pesticide use, at least until more studies could be done.     

Has this happened? Not really.                  

Ground sprayer.
PinP photos

An instructor in Plant Science at the University of Manitoba, Gary Martens,  says the use of herbicides (weed-killers - which concerned Ms. Magoon the most) and insecticides (insect-killers), stayed the same from '06 to '09. But the use of fungicides (to treat plant diseases) is on the increase, from 2.1 million acres sprayed in '05, to 4.4 million acres in '09.

So, despite Mr. Dahls' assurances that Canada only approves new crop pesticides based on "extensive research data" Ms. Magoon's recommendations, based on her own "extensive data," don't seem to have attracted that much attention!
Ontario also keeps some figures in this regard. The ones I was able to retrieve are not encouraging, however. While pesticide use in that province has dropped significantly over the past quarter-century, the trend is definitely upward, once again - 15% between '03 and '08 (the last year for which figures are available).
Instead of taking "efficient, science-based" action (Mr. Dahl's words) to protect public health and the environment, our politicians and food regulators have been rolling out the red carpet for genetically-modified crops such as corn, soy beans, sugar beets and even alfalfa (which few people, including farmers, seem to want).

(The current federal Agriculture Minister, Gerry Ritz has promised not to proceed with GM alfalfa. But, if the Conservatives are re-elected, I suspect all bets are off. The Tories have shown a remarkable loyalty to all things GM, not to mention a willingness to bend to the relentless will of corporate bio-tech lobbyists.)

There are conflicting studies on whether these GM crops lead to more, or less pesticide use. There seems to be a glaring lack of monitoring data in this regard, in Canada.

But a credible study in the US finds herbicide use there underwent a net increase of more than 174 
million kilograms in the 13 years after GM crops were first grown commercially, in 1996. 

The author of that study, Charles Benbrook, (r.) is Chief Scientist with the Organic Centre. He served for many years as an expert on pesticide policy with two US Presidents and the National Academy of Sciences.  

Artist rendering by Paul Hoppe 
Dr.Benbrook says these GM crops and the herbicides to which they have been genetically manipulated to resist (mostly glyphosate), have led to the evolution of "super weeds," which have also become resistant. 
These, in turn, take ever-more-potent crop poisons to kill. As he puts it, "Vastly expanded use of 2,4-D and other older, relatively more toxic herbicides on fields infested with glyphosate-resistant weeds will increase human and environmental risks. The overall chemical footprint of GM crops has been decidedly negative."
Tim Wendell (above) keeps bees in 
MB & SK Larry Powell PinP photo.
Fully aware of scientific studies proving a certain family of
pesticides (neonicotinoids), banned in certain Europeon countries, were deadly to honey bees, Canadian"regulators" have repeatedly licensed and re-licensed those products for use, notably in the treatment of GM canola seed, a major crop in Manitoba and elsewhere on the prairies.  

 About three years ago, after all of this had been going on, Canadian regulators then approved a new product (Movento) banned in the States. Beekeepers fear is is even more harmful than its forerunners. 

Most honey produced in this province comes from bees which forage on the canola flower. Meanwhile, pollinator populations everywhere, including the honey bee, continue on an alarming, downward spiral. Humans and wildlife alike will lose up to one-third of our food crops if these wondrous creatures vanish from the earth.

Corn harvester. PinP photo.
Just when we thought we had heard the worst, these same regulators rubber-stamped Smarstax corn. 

Smartstax is a genetically modified wonder, the seed "shot-full" of the chemical most harmful to bees. No health study. No environmental study. Nothing. Never mind that its approval also ran counter to "Codex Alimentarius," an international food safety protocol which Canada helped negotiate.

The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) points to several animal studies indicating "serious health risks associated with GM food consumption." These include (but aren't limited to) "infertility, immune disruption, accelerated aging, insulin regulation and changes in the liver, kidney, spleen and gastrointestinal systems." The AAEM is an international association of physicians and others which strives to expand knowledge of human health exposures which are often overlooked.

Despite all this, Mr. Dahl insists that "No food innovation has had greater scientific review than the genetic modification of plants."

If this is so, why did The Royal Society of Canada Panel on the Future of Food Biotechnology, commissioned by the Canadian government, pose this question? "How can we identify the health hazards of GM foods when we might not know what to look for? We do not know if any of the GM foods currently on the market pose health risks. There are only a few preliminary, independent scientific studies that examine possible human health effects and the lack of scientific literature itself raises critical questions about the science and regulation of genetic engineering."

How many more kids will have to develop Down syndrome or spina biffida before we seriously look into the implications of our food safety system and get some real answers, once and for all? 

Perhaps what Canada needs now are more reality checks into what the shortcomings of our system really are, and fewer cheerleaders who keep telling us "all is well."

If Mr. Dahl so fervently believes that we must cling to "science" in formulating public policy, why does his own organization hold such contempt, (abundantly evident on the Frontier Centre's website) for the mounds of evidence which now support the well-proven science called climate change?

Larry Powell is a journalist and blogger in Neepawa, Manitoba.