Writer Deplores Scary Science


Calgary Herald March 28, 2002 By Mia Stainsby


"It could have ended all plant life on this continent," geneticist David Suzuki says in the book. "The implications of this case are nothing short of terrifying."

A few years ago, a German biotech company genetically modified a common soil bacterium, Klebsiella planticula, to enable it to break down vegetative waste and produce ethanol.

It seemed like a huge accomplishment -- ethanol could be used as a gasoline alternative and the rest of the biomass as compost for farming. Hopes were high and it was field-tested at Oregon State University.

When the genetically modified bacterium was added to living soil, though, the seeds planted in the soil (to produce the vegetable matter to be broken down) sprouted, but then died. The genetically modified Klebsiella was a feisty little guy, knocking out a fungus that plants need to extract nutrients from the soil. Without it, plants can't survive.


More frightening, the genetically modified bacteria persisted in the soil. Had it been released, it could have become virtually impossible to eradicate, says author John Robbins in his newest book, The Food Revolution
(Conari Press, $28.95). "It could have ended all plant life on this continent," geneticist David Suzuki says in the book. "The implications of this case are nothing short of terrifying."

"That's how close we came," Robbins says during a phone interview from his home in Santa Cruz, Calif. To him, genetic engineering in the food industry spells potential disaster to our health and environment.

His first book, Diet for a New America, made us aware of animal cruelty in factory farm and awakened us to the environmental and health impacts of eating meat and dairy products.

The Food Revolution addresses his concerns about food production. He writes about the problems of fish farming, declining wild fisheries, and the political, corporate, health and environmental intrigues of large-scale meat production in North America.

But his biggest worry is genetically modified food and its potential to alter our food supply and health.

"It's utterly in the hands of corporations seeking private profit," he says.

Globally, about 40 million hectares are planted with genetically modified crops: 72 per cent in the U. S.; 17 per cent in Argentina; 10 per cent in Canada.

"Basically, the rest of the world is saying they don't want to be guinea pigs. They're actively, specifically, directly, rejecting it." says Robbins.

According to Health Canada, 48 GM crops so far have been approved in Canada. One-third of the corn and two-thirds of the soybeans grown in the U. S. are genetically modified.

Seventy per cent of modifications involve the Bacillus thuringiensis gene
(Bt), which is spliced into the plant so it can withstand specific herbicides and resist insects.

The U. S. Department of Agriculture tripled the allowable residues of active ingredients in the herbicide Roundup to make the GM technique commercially viable with soy crops, says Robbins. It allows farmers to kill weeds with Roundup without killing the Roundup-resistant crop. "But people are eating weedkiller," he says.

The Vancouver office of Earthsave Canada says it's difficult to pin down how many GM foods end up on supermarket shelves. "Soy, canola and corn are widely genetically modified," says spokesman Dom Repta.

Robbins says Monsanto, which produces Roundup, has done tests that prove Roundup Ready soybeans have lower nutritional values.

Another problem is *Monsanto's "terminator technology," in which seeds are rendered sterile after one planting. Eighty per cent of crops in developing countries use saved seeds, but with this technology, seeds must be purchased each year.

* http://jahtruth.net/gmterm.htm

Robbins says another company has patented a genetic process that makes seed germination and growth dependent upon repeated doses of the company's own chemicals.

Experiments in the biotech food industry have included inserting flounder genes into tomatoes, human genes into salmon, and rat and bacteria genes into broccoli. Labs around the world are researching splicing genes into fish from chickens, humans, cattle and rats.

When genes shuttle between a wide variety of species, they can take with them genetic parasites such as viruses, usually kept in check by species barriers, Robbins says.

Many countries are saying no to GM foods. Europe, Robbins says, has been leading the charge in rejecting GM foods and embracing organic farming. By
2010, a third of farmed area in the European Union will be organic. Canada is lagging behind with 1.3 per cent (1999). The U. S. has 0.2 per cent.

Meanwhile, Brazil's largest soybean-growing state declared itself a GM-free zone. India has banned the testing of GM crops. The governments of France, Italy, Denmark, Greece and Luxembourg have moved to block new varieties of GM crops in the European Union. The union's seven largest grocery chains have made a public commitment to go GM-free.

Unlike Canada and the U. S., the European Union, Japan, South Korea, Australia and Mexico require mandatory labelling of GM foods. In October, a required mandatory labelling bill was defeated 126 to 91 in Canada.

"To me," says Robbins, "the measure of a great civilization is the quality of lives it leaves to future generations."