Don’t Throw out Biotech Baby with Environmental Bathwater

Commentary, Environment, Robert Sopuck

We’ve been hearing a lot of guff about “Franken-foods”, the anti-science crowd’s moniker for Genetically Modified Organisms. They claim that foodstuffs improved in the laboratory will turn us all into creatures from the Black Lagoon. Their scare tactics mimic the script of a very bad horror movie. It’s the same bunch that always shows up at World Trade meetings to whip up hysteria against technology, capitalism, and modern agriculture, under the guise of “saving the Earth.” What nonsense!

Modern farming has become as high-tech as any industry in the world. Today’s farmer is skilled in computers, marketing, machinery, weather, animal health and plant science. Not to mention the sheer stubbornness of these folks who just keep going in the face of a mountain of adversity. To the vast majority of Canadians who have never steered a tractor, farmers deliver the cheapest, healthiest and most environmentally sound food in the world. They do it by the continual adoption of the newest and best that biotechnology has to offer.

Biotechnology, or “genetic engineering,” is agriculture’s greatest leap forward since John Deere’s old moldboard plow. It is an essential tool for improving the environmental performance of agriculture, for staying ahead of pests and ensuring that poor people around the world have access to good food. The highly organized effort to stop genetically modified grains in Canada seems to be long on panic and short on a balanced examination of the facts.

Some recently reported examples. A “new” pig has been developed, nicknamed the “enviro-pig.” This porker has much more ability to utilize phosphorus, an element that when it gets into lakes causes algae blooms. This pig cleans up lakes! Also, plant scientists have created a hybrid tomato by injecting it with genes from a salt-tolerant plant. These tomatoes can grow in salty soil ruined by improper irrigation.

Those are nice examples, but a life and death one is “golden rice.” In many regions of Asia and Africa, poor children are weaned on rice gruel, and little else. “Natural” rice lacks beta-carotene and iron and millions of children die annually from diseases linked to deficiency in them. Once rice’s genetic “map” was discovered, biotechnologists developed a modified strain that produces enough of these ingredients to save lives.

Alberta scientists recently announced the development of a genetically altered mouse that has, basically, a human liver. It sounds like a freak, but Hepatitis C, an incurable liver disease, kills over 1000 Canadians annually, and makes a whole lot more very ill. This “new” mouse allows for the increased culture of the Hep C virus, which means that scientists will be able to speed up the search for a cure.

Recently, there have been concerns raised about new strains of genetically altered wheats. While they may be valid in this isolated case, we need to be concerned about “throwing the biotechnology baby out with the environmental bathwater.” Biotechnology is crucial to the success of prairie agriculture and protecting the prairie environment.

The next time you are tempted to support the “anti-science” crowd, think again. Statistics Canada reported last year that between 1986 and 1996, life expectancies in Canada rose by 2.5 years for males and 1.5 years for females. I wonder if science and technology had anything to do with that?