Genetically polluted fields... or a boon to our Ag-industry and personal nutrition?

Would you knowingly serve food to your family that hasn’t been thoroughly proven to be safe?

This is the question that millions of consumers are asking throughout the world.

It’s also a question that the Canadian government is not adequately addressing, according to many concerned citizens as well as representatives from national lobby groups and organizations such as the Sierra Club of Canada and Greenpeace.

At issue are genetically modified (GM) crops. A product of scientific biotechnology, plants are being genetically manipulated for characteristics that will be beneficial to their developers. Increased yield, weed and pest control and nutrition all factor into promoted advantages of GM crops.

The major seed growing and chemical companies love the concept. Industries such as Monsanto Company and DuPont of the United States, as well as Novartis AG of Switzerland, claim that critics are hysterical.

Are they?

Does genetic manipulation of the food that arrives upon your table matter?

Maude Barlow, of the Council of Canadians, notes, “There’s been no long-term testing on what this does to human health and animal health.” 

Naturally, GM industries such as Monsanto actively promote the concept of genetically modified crops. Why?

From what I have read (and I thank reader Charles Pirie for his many e-mails, plus articles I’ve read in such magazines as Alternatives, Nature, and newspapers like The Ottawa Citizen, plus various websites) it seems as if the perceived benefits have little to do with improved nutrition.

Instead, Monsanto and its rivals wish to control worldwide seed production and distribution.

To do this, they have successfully lobbied the agricultural industry to embrace genetic engineering of seeds so that they will act as their own herbicides and pesticides.

From the agricultural producer’s perspective, this is potentially a real benefit and the reasons are probably obvious. The savings from energy consumption -- not to mention time -- of seeding fields with a crop that is already resistant to blight and insects, and which promises higher yields is undeniably attractive to farmers who are notably pressed for time and searching for ways to improve their bottom line.

However, some producers are evidently not so keen.

Percy Schmeiser is a Saskatchewan farmer who is suing Monsanto. He alleges that his farm has been polluted by RoundupReady canola that has invaded his land from neighbouring farms. Jeff Singer’s article in the Canadian magazine called Alternatives: Environmental thought, policy and action (Winter 2000, Volume 26 Number 1, p. 3) notes:

“Monsanto’s genetically modified canola can withstand multiple applications of the company’s Roundup herbicide. Private investigators hired by Monsanto say they found the canola growing on Schmeiser’s farm.

“But Schmeiser says he never used Monsansto’s seeds, and Roundup-resistant canola is spreading onto his land, despite his efforts to control it. ‘It’s in the ditches and the roadsides; it’s in the shelter-belts; it’s in the gardens; it’s all over,’ he says.” 

If Schmeiser’s allegations prove correct, the consequences for any farmer who is trying to avoid GM crops is severe. If the biotech creations do successfully cross-pollinate, it means that all crops, all plants are at risk.

In other words, GM crops have the potential to invade and alter the genetic composition of all plants on earth. And, if all plants are “at risk,” so are all of us, and every living creature on earth.


No. I believe we all should be asking a lot more questions about how food gets onto our table -- and into the mouths of cattle, hogs, sheep and other species upon which human beings feed.

After all, it never hurts to ask questions.

The Special Report in The Ottawa Citizen, (Monday, January 3, 2000, p. A8) ran an in-depth article on GM foods. Tom Spear’s section, entitled “GM foods are a boon to farmers, but consumers ask: So what?” was thought-provoking.

In it, he quotes Mark Sears, a University of Guelph professor and leading Canadian corn expert. He commented on how consumers don’t perceive it as a gain and feels that if the biotech companies want us to embrace them, that they will have to alter their promotional (or spin) techniques.

He says, “They’re working on some rice varieties that are going to have iron and vitamin E, and other nutritional qualities to them. I think they’re going to look at oil crops around the world and find those that provide more nutritious oils. Protein’s going to be the next one.

“Eventually we’re going to have nitrogen fixation in crops that don’t have it now. Grasses for instance. These are things that are dreams, really, from the 50’s.”

 Dreams or not, many consumers throughout the world think that GM crops should be more thoroughly investigated prior to their world-wide acceptance.

Critics cite the “pollution” of crops and other natural vegetation (not to mention the water table and entire food chain) such that “superweeds” will be created. They also are concerned about human allergic reactions to GM crops.

As a consumer, I’m no specialist. But I’ll tell you one thing. I do heartily wish that the Canadian government would be more cautious about embracing the biotech industry and GM crops.

I also think we, as consumers, ought to know whether the food we buy has been manufactured from GM crops. Major British food producers such as Nestlés, and Cadbury, as well as American and Canadian ones like Gerber, HJ Heinz and McCain Foods have pledged to phase out GM ingredients in their processed foods.

However, the problem is how to identify such crops. And, if the Saskatchewan farmer is right, and his crops are being contaminated (cross-pollinated) by his neighbour’s GM crops, how can anyone tell what’s GM and what isn’t?

I do think we ought to be asking more questions. I am convinced the federal government should be conducting more tests. After all, the European Union has officially “rejected some types of genetically modified corn and canola, including several varieties from Canada. It has also said no new biotech foods will be approved during the next three years.” (Citizen, p. A8)

Skeptical? You bet I am.

What do you think about GM foods?

Katharine Fletcher enjoys her farm near Quyon, Québec. Contact her at