Monthly Archives: May 2015

A few things we should know about GMO

by Stan Hirst

indexI met my neighbour Elinor in the supermarket the other day. She was in Hot & Cold Cereals studying the side panel of a cornflakes box. As I strolled up she shook her head and replaced the box on the shelf. I recognized the cereal as one I sometimes buy, so I just had to ask: “What’s wrong with it?”.
“Probably got GMOs in it” she replied.
“So?” I persisted.
“They’re bad for you” she said, and wandered off to Jams and Spreads.

Two things later nagged at me about dear Elinor’s response to my question. The first was her view that “GMOs are bad for you“. That translates into a perception that a food containing ingredients derived from genetically modified (GM) crops such as wheat or flax can be harmful, even dangerous, if eaten. Is that true?

Elinor is hardly alone in this view of GM food. A 2014 online survey by Insights West amongst respondents in B.C. revealed that 66% of consumers had a negative view of GM foods and 56% favoured a ban on GM products. However, when asked why they IDontKnowfelt so negatively, a plethora of reasons was offered, including vague terms like ‘unnatural’, ‘bad’, ‘unsafe’, ‘unknown effects’, ‘better bodies’, ‘seeds’ and ‘altered’. This strongly indicates that the bulk of the public doesn’t really understand genetic modification and what it means for consumers, and that much more public education is needed on the subject (which is unfortunately complex).

We maybe need to ask a more fundamental question first. Do we even have GM foods on Canadian supermarket shelves? We know they have them in spades in the U.S. but this is Canada eh.

The answer is yes. Several varieties of genetically modified corn, canola, soy and sugar beets have been approved by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada for cultivation, harvesting and processing, and so may find their way into food products sold in Canadian grocery stores. A second source could be imported fresh and processed food and products made from some varieties of cottonseed, papaya and squash and from bovine milk grown and processed in the U.S.

So how do we know that GM foods are safe to consume?

In Canada we rely on Health Canada’s assurance on that. They apply, in their own words, “science-based regulation, guidelines and public health policy, as well as health risk assessments concerning chemical, physical and microbiological contaminants, toxicants and allergens in the food supply” to protect our health and safety of Canadians.

But that verbiage is a little murky. It turns out that Canadian government agencies don’t actually test the safety of the GM crops or products we consume. Instead, their people read great tomes of information, most of it from the U.S., on the GM products in question and derive their conclusions accordingly.

In the US three regulatory agencies share responsibility for GM crop and product approvals. The Environmental Projection Agency (EPA) regulates biopesticides derived from GM live organisms (usually bacteria). The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the safety of GM crops that are eaten by humans or animals. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) looks after all the rest.

Does all this include testing the safety of GM crops and crop products used and consumed by the American (and Canadian) public?

Actually, no. The U.S. agencies get their intel on GM from the same pile of documents, study reports and assessments that the Canadian agencies use, probably plus a few more that are not passed on.

Well then, where does all the GM intel really come from?

It comes in many forms from studies on GM crops and crop species conducted by thousands of scientists in more than a dozen technical fields. These specialists are housed in labs and research facilities in universities and commercial units located throughout the U.S., Europe and elsewhere.

And who pays for all this research and testing?

It seems that the majority of studies and assessments are paid for by Monsanto, Dupont (Pioneer), Syngenta, Groupe Limagrain, Land ‘O Lakes, KWS AG, Bayer, Sakata, Takii and DLF-Trifolium. These corporations collectively control 73 percent of the world’s commercial seed market and 90 percent of the global pesticide market. So basically the same people that synthesize the GM crops in the first place pay for the subsequent safety trials.

This all seems like the proverbial putting the goat out to guard the cabbages, but development and testing of GM crops is a very expensive business. It makes financial and managerial sense to let the developer and potential profiteer bear the not inconsiderable costs of research, development and product development. The alternative would be to transfer some or all of the testing to regulatory agencies and let it be paid for by the taxpayer. Suddenly there is silence in the room.

Do they test the safety of the GM crops, products and derivatives on humans? Officially no, unofficially only in the movies. GM crop and food trials utilize hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of laboratory rats and mice and other beasts, who are categorized, aged, sexed, measured, weighed, fed on GM foods and then eventually dispatched so that their organs can be examined in detail for pathological signs.

So how do they relate the feeding trials with rats, mice and other beasties with potential human impacts of eating the same GM food?

Laboratory animals have been used as surrogates for humans in clinical trials of drugs, foods and other substances for more than a century. The idea is that if a GM foodstuff is going to have any deleterious effect on a human, then it should manifest in some detectable way in a lab rat or mouse.

There is one big assumption built into the testing of all GM foods and products intended for human or domestic livestock consumption. As long as the introduced gene protein is determined to be safe (an initial step in the safety assessment) and the GM and non-GM crops are alike in all other respects (i.e. in the other 99.999% of the genes in the crop plant), then the GM crop is said to be substantially equivalent to the conventional counterpart and it is then assumed that it will not pose any health risks. This assumption is built into all regulatory approvals of GM foods in the U.S. and Canada. It satisfies the experts in the field of food safety while intensely annoying all the many opponents of GM crops and foods.IsGenModFoodSafe

There is of course a rather obvious way of assessing GM food safety, one that isn’t often openly mentioned. The fact is that some GM foods, primarily those derived from corn and soya, have been on the market in the U.S. and Canada but also in the developing world for three decades already. Foods with GM content have been guzzled by countless billions of people over that period, and so far no clear signs of ill effects attributable to GMOs have emerged.

Clearly the many learned and professional bodies which represent international professional medical and scientific opinion think that so far everything is hunky dory on the GM food safety issue, and they’ve proclaimed as much. So has Neil de Grasse Tyson for that matter!

So, if consuming GM foods poses no known risk to the consumer, then there is no problem with the production and marketing of GM crops?

Sadly, the logic extending from GM foods to GM crops is not simple. There may be no convincing evidence against the harm of consuming GM foods, but we need to be mindful of the potential problems surrounding the growing of GM crops.

Most, not all, GM crops are engineered to fit in with large-scale mechanized (or industrial) agriculture which favours monocultures and the use of large quantities of herbicides to kill weeds which compete with corn or soya crops and pesticides to kill off the many bugs that infest monoculture crops and drive down profits.

The herbicide glyphosate has been on the market for more than half a century and is now used globally to the extent of nearly 800,000 metric tonnes annually. Much, not all, of this production goes to killing weeds in monoculture corn and soya, these two crop plants having now been rendered resistant to the glyphosate through genetic engineering. The fact that the seeds and the herbicide are supplied to the farmers and agricultural co-operatives by the same companies enhances the commercial reach and amounts of glyphosate in use.

Glyphosate has been labelled “probably carcinogenic” by World Health Organization but that in itself doesn’t say too much – many agricultural chemicals are carcinogenic if applied profusely or carelessly enough or if inhaled or ingested during application. Glyphosate is used very liberally on many commercial crops. Glyphosate residues have been detected in GM foods at concentrations measured in a few parts per million, and some surveys have found glyphosate residues in human urine. Much speculation but no hard proof exists thus far for any harmful effects of these concentrations on human health. Much more important at this stage is the clear emergence of glyphosate-resistant weeds on a large scale due to massive and non-selective application of the herbicide, much of it on GM crops.01roundup.adapt.1190.2

I mentioned two things that nagged at me about Elinor’s reaction to GMOs in the cereal box. One was her automatic assumption that GM ingredients were somehow harmful. The other? She had checked out the GM information on the label (and found none) but she seemed totally unconcerned about the huge amounts of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in the same product, details of which were fully visible on the label. HFCS is inextricably linked to obesity, diabetes, chronic disease and mercury contamination in half the North American population.

This all sounds like crossing the road while watching the oncoming car on the left and getting flattened by the bus coming from the right!

Keep It in the Ground: The Biggest Story in the World

by Josef Kuhn

Keep what in the ground? Who says this is the biggest story in the world? The ‘what’ is hydrocarbon fuel material in its many forms. Alan Rusbridger, Editor-in-chief of The Guardian and Bill McKibben, leader of, got together this past year and from their discussions concluded that ending the mining, transporting and burning of hydrocarbons, also known as fossil fuels, is the biggest story in the world. “Keep it in the Ground” is the key to reversing the catastrophic damage hydrocarbon material produces when it is moved from where it has been placed by natural processes and pumped into our atmosphere as exhaust from our fuels.

Many of the world’s scientists, scholars and journalists, and even some politicians, have expressed grave concerns for several decades now about what is happening in our atmosphere and to life in our waters and on the land as a result of climate change. One just needs to follow the news to see story after story about how climate change is impacting the well being of people all around the world. People, especially young people, are taking to the streets in protest as they see big trouble for their future and the future of their children if action is not taken to reduce the increasing impact of storms, heat waves, melting glaciers, ocean acidification and other effects of global warming. More and more people are seeing that the twentieth century industrial way of life is contributing to a distribution of wealth that results in poor living conditions and poor health around the world.

When Alan Rusbridger had his breakthrough discussion with Bill McKibben, he was looking for ‘the crux of the matter,’ what should journalists, and everyone who cares about this growing crisis, be focusing on if it is to be averted. Keeping the bulk of the hydrocarbons in the ground emerged as the critical, strategic action that people everywhere, in all walks of life, must focus on. All people, not just government and corporation leaders, must take action to insure that the right decisions are made in order for us to meet our present and future energy needs without damaging the health of eco-systems and the well being of people.

There is clearly a backlash against this kind of thinking from industry and government leaders who are arguing that the health of our economic systems must be our first priority and that climate change and ecology must be a lower priority. The question each of us has to address if we are to achieve success in preserving healthy eco-systems is: can we have healthy economic systems if our climate is being disrupted and all forms of life impaired? This is another way of expressing “The Biggest Story in the World.”

My view as an ecologist and Elder is that we cannot have healthy economies if our ecological systems are being damaged and disrupted by climate change. Although the Government of Canada has made it very clear that it does not support this view, many of Canada’s scientists and scholars are supporting the need to recognize that we are moving rapidly into crises. More and more objective, fair minded people are advocating that Canadian business and government leaders join with leaders in the international community who are working to formulate the actions that are needed.

What is emerging from the international conferences that are underway as I write this is that the release of carbon into the atmosphere from the burning of hydrocarbons must be curtailed, i.e., “Keep It in the Ground.” The scientists, economists, journalists and others who are contributing factual information and ethical assessment to the national and international decision making processes are making it clear that changing the way our industries develop and use energy will produce economic benefits, like jobs and investment opportunities. We should not be misled by twentieth century thinking and policies which make protecting the carbon fueled industrial development sector of our economy the highest priority of our governments.

“The Biggest Story in the World” involves each of us being well informed and contributing in a responsible way to the critical decision making process that is underway to control carbon emissions. We know that carbon based fuels will be with us for a while. We also know that this energy source must be replaced as fast as possible by clean energy or all life will suffer tremendous damage. The technology to make the needed changes is available. The will has been lacking. Will people work at making it happen? Will people express their concerns and what they want to see happen? Will we as voters, stockholders and consumers support politicians and businesses that will contribute to changing the way we develop and use energy? For the well being of our children and grandchildren, this Elder sure hopes so!


Environmental Action and Spiritual Discipline

by Karl Perrin


We are so lucky. We live in a heaven:
a place of peace and beauty and kindness.
We stand on the shoulders of giants – people of truth and service, people with the courage to speak truth to power.
As Vancouver Unitarians, we are blessed with this musical architecture of Wolfgang Gerson,
maintained by hundreds, enjoyed by thousands.
We are blessed with the courageous wisdom, the intellectual and loving passion of our Minister Emeritus, Phillip Hewett, a humble man who walks among us.
We are blessed.
In 1980 the Dalai Lama came to Vancouver.
I’ll never forget his simple message:
Let’s all be a little kinder to each other.”
We could stop right here:
Be a little kinder.”

But I have more to say, in spite of the Tao Te Ching’s warning: “He who speaks, doesn’t know: and he who knows, doesn’t speak.
That’s what it says.
So judge me not by my words, but by my actions;
and today I would ask, that you judge me by my environmental actions.

My Inspiration

I must use words to convey the inspiration offered to me, and to all of us, by men and women from our spiritual history.
For example,
• Jesus of Nazareth,
• the abolitionist Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker,
• Martin Luther King, Jr.,
• the Rev. James Reeb, and
• an extraordinary Unitarian-Universalist from my home congregation in Detroit: Viola Liuzzo.
What they had in common, was a willingness to listen.
I’m not talking about listening to another person, as valuable as that kindness may be.
I’m talking about listening for, and hearing, a call,
a call from Truth, a call from Service, a call from the depths of Love.
Can you hear it?
Be careful, it may be a very quiet voice, often drowned out by the demands of body, brain, and ego.
You may need a certain peace in your soul to hear it.
It is not the voice of anger, or the voice of pain, although they may demand your attention.
But this call is persistent.
Like a very quiet telephone, it keeps ringing until you answer, or you choose to walk away from it.

My Call

I heard the call last fall on Burnaby Mountain.
The call had been building up for two and a half years as I participated in BROKE: Burnaby Residents Opposing Kinder Morgan Expansion.
The call asked me to commit civil disobedience: to disobey an unjust law.
What law?
The laws creating the National Energy Board.
The laws creating its narrow scope and its truncated process for considering the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion.
Mark Elieson, former head of BC Hydro, quit as an intervener with the NEB, calling the process a “sham” and a “farce”.
I heard the call and I tried to apply reason.
I asked myself:
What are the costs and benefits of participating in the protests against Kinder Morgan’s plans to build a second diluted bitumen pipeline from Edmonton to Burrard Inlet and the Salish Sea?
I asked myself: “Will the National Energy Board give a fair and complete hearing? Will it consider the Climate Change implications of tripling the delivery of dilbit from Burnaby–
to 890,000 barrels per day?
Who am I kidding? How could I NOT participate, given my vow to my son in 1993?
I vowed to do everything in my power to prevent Global Warming from ending his life prematurely, in 2050, as civilization collapses.
I vowed to stand before him in 2030 and honestly say to him “Ben, I did my best.”
So obviously I was going to participate.
But the question remained.
“What degree of protest? And how could I participate?”
And was I ready to progress from foot soldier to leader, to take an extra step, to actually, creatively lead?
Could I answer the call, not with a “maybe” or an “I don’t know”, but with a clean, clear “Yes”?

My Reasoning

For hundreds of years, we Unitarians have gained confidence in dispassionate reasoning as one path to Truth.
So I had to calmly consider consequences.
What could be the consequences of stepping across the police line enforcing the injunction, which gave Kinder Morgan the right to cut trees on city land, in fact, on Coast Salish land?
What had been the consequences of similar actions?
I know a woman who was arrested for protecting two rare eco-systems on Eagle Ridge Bluffs before the winter Olympics.
No it wasn’t Unitarian Betty Krawczyk, who served 7 months in the women’s prison.
It wasn’t Harriet Nahanee of the Squamish Nation, who died soon after two weeks in jail. It was Val Lys, who was struggling with the burden of 500 community hours, while making a meager living. I learned that she had had the option of a $5,000 fine, although some others had only been fined $250.
So there were my consequences.

Breaking the injunction on Burnaby Mountain could result in a $250 fine or even a $5,000 fine, if I appeared to be a leader.
And then there was the big unknown: would a U.S. border guard stop me from visiting my son, my sister, my friends, living in the States?
But I heard the call. I had to listen.
What specifically was I called to do?
I knew from the movement to abolish slavery and the movement to conscientiously object to the Viet Nam war that Quakers were leaders, but Unitarians were quick to follow.
I said to my Burnaby friend, Ruth, herself a Quaker:
Where Quakers lead, Unitarians are sure to follow”.
I saw Kevin Washbrook, a climate activist friend, actively supporting those getting arrested.

I took the next step.
I started helping those arrested, to get home when they were released from jail.

And guess what? They were pretty happy after 5 hours in jail.
And then three of my heroes from 1993 Clayoquot Sound, Valerie Langer, Karen Mahon and Tzeporah Berman started showing up each morning.
They began pacifying the protesters, and then the police.
After consulting my wife, and my boss, I looked at my calendar and decided that Tuesday would be a good day to peacefully cross the police line.
It was a decision of heart and mind.
My wife and I live in a small condo next to SFU, on top of Burnaby Mountain.
Through her inheritance we were lucky to semi-retire in a peaceful spot.
So we thought.

But as Kinder Morgan cut down healthy trees in our park and our mayor cried “foul”,
Burnaby Mountain was suddenly not so peaceful.
Could Burnaby become an industrial sacrifice zone, like Detroit?

Could our peaceful spot become a death trap if an earthquake and fire in the nearby tank farm sent toxic smoke up the mountain?
Would the province protect us?
The silence from Victoria was deafening,
except for the comment that 11 year olds shouldn’t protest.
11 year olds, living below the oil tank farm, who had been well educated by their parents.
11 year olds, with no vote and no voice.
11 year olds, who will suffer the consequences of our oil addiction.
11 year olds, who will be 47 in 2050, 67 in 2070.
And since the National Energy Board had ruled that the City could not protect its own park, could not oppose Climate Change, then in my view, protection fell to the citizens.
I heard the call, loud and clear, “Follow the Quaker!
Speak truth to power! Oppose the unjust process which gives an appointed and biased energy board authority over an elected city government;
an energy board which cannot consider cumulative and major long term impacts.
And from my vow to my son and his generation I heard the call to STOP Kinder Morgan!
Peacefully, non-violently, by appealing to voters through the media, to stop Kinder Morgan!
So that was my environmental action, and it’s not over by a long shot.
But what about “spiritual discipline”?
There’s no question that appearing to be spiritual is good PR from our side of the argument.
I didn’t shy away from using the media to counteract the millions of dollars Kinder Morgan could spend on buying influence.
So I wore my black coat and necktie, my fedora and gum boots, when I got arrested.
By the time I crossed the line, there was a ton of media covering every angle of the Battle for Burnaby Mountain.
But such coverage has its dangers.
It’s really easy to get caught up in the media spotlight.
The brotherhood and sisterhood of the movement is fun to be part of, as the mutual support for creative expression takes over one’s emotions.
The group-think of the mob, the self-righteous mob, is difficult to walk away from, when all your new best-friends-forever are silently chanting, “Do it. Do it. Do it”,
whatever “it” may be.
But I also heard the call: “If not me, then who? If not now, then when?

I escaped from Detroit, but there’s no where else to run to.
Sometimes, one has to take a stand.
Another factor was the story Ben West told me last August, knowing a Kinder Morgan confrontation was coming.
I have worked with Ben West on several pilgrimages to Burns Bog.
I knew that Ben West had been adopted into the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation, where the Lakota spiritual leader Phil Lane is revered.
The Lakota followed the buffalo herds, and knew their survival strategies.

Ben knew I was a Unitarian and a council member of the Suzuki Elders.
So he told me Phil Lane’s Lakota story:
When the buffalo herd is attacked by a pack of wolves,
they form a circle with the young ones in the middle,
and the elders on the outside front line.”
Why are the elders on the outside, facing the wolves?
Well, they have survived previous attacks.
Being older, they have previous experience of wolf attacks, and so they don’t panic so easily at the sight of blood.
And they have less to lose. This is the way of nature. The elders step to the front. The elders must lead when sacrifice is called for. The elders, more than any,
can distinguish the genuine call to courage versus the push of the mob or the pull of ego gratification.
“Be a little kinder” is the call.
But also, “Speak truth to power.” And sometimes the call is:
Take the lead. If not me, then who?
If not now, then when?

If rationality requires skepticism it also requires listening to one’s heart.
The head and heart working together are stronger, more reliable, than either working alone.
Listen to your head and your heart. And when they agree, then go ahead.

Spiritual Discipline: Truth and Service

So again, where does spiritual discipline come into the picture?
My spiritual path is only mine, so it may not suit you, just as your spiritual paths may not be right for me.
I am all for meditation, fasting, silent walking, prayer,kindness, music, the arts, pilgrimage:
All the traditional spiritual disciplines of the humble seekers of the Way.
Recently, I’ve added a daily practice of writing 3 gratitudes and then writing down the best thing that’s happened to me in the last 24 hours.
That makes me happier, and more generous.
But my faith, my long term spiritual discipline, is in seeking truth and offering service. Truth and service. Where did that come from?

When I was a teenager at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church of Detroit in 1962, I realized that my meaning in life would depend on my choosing a meaning for my life.
It wasn’t going to fall out of the sky. My meaning for my life was my choice. And so I chose truth and service.
Seeking truth led me to find inspiration in the lives of Jesus, Gandhi, and very much in 1962, Dr. Martin Luther King and the martyrs, the children, beaten and dying in the Civil Rights struggles of Alabama and Mississippi.
And there were Unitarians in the front lines as well. There was Rev. James Reeb, who went early to Selma, Alabama.
His murder led to over a hundred Unitarian ministers descending on Selma. And there were many Unitarian lay-people, like Detroit’s Viola Liuzzo, who heard the call, and in spite of great sacrifices and even greater consequences, (she was murdered, too) decided that they had to serve. They HAD to serve.
In ’93, when I made my vow to my son and his generation, I thought it might take ten years to stop Climate Change.
I’m still at it. I HAD to serve. But I have learned to pace myself. I know when I can leave my comfort zone and when I can’t.

And I love the joy of using my gifts, returning a little of what I have been given.
But loving service doesn’t mean it’s always a bed of roses.
Ask our Refugee Committee. To serve with all your heart, and all your mind, and all your soul, when one could stay home and just watch TV, is not so easy.
Ask our librarians, our board members, our farmers’ market volunteers. Ask them why they do it. They do it because they love it. But it ain’t easy, it means leaving your comfort zone.

On the other hand, “Action is the antidote to despair” (Joan Baez)
So many others in this church and the wider Unitarian movement will not only speak truth to power.

They LIVE truth. They LIVE love and service. Truth disciplines the mind. Service disciplines the heart. And Love ensures that we are all connected.
Because loving service, grounded in truth, serves all of us.
We are one body, not only as Unitarians, but we are one with all we touch as individuals, as a community, as a church community within this nation.
And if we can see beyond the artifacts of our urban existence, we will see that we are connected fundamentally to the inter-dependent web of all existence, life and death together in an eternal spiral of being and non-being. Our existence is supported by all the nested eco-systems of this Earth, our only home.
We are not only seekers of the Way, we are potentially, a powerful force for good. Which reminds me of a quote often attributed to Nelson Mandela, but he was quoting from Marianne Williamson’s book. Listen.

The Call: from A Return to Love by Marianne Williamson

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission
to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Let Truth discipline your mind.
Let Service discipline your heart.
Then, when you hear the call, your mind and heart will work together.
And they will answer “No.” “Maybe.” “I don’t know” or “Yes!”
This time our answer is Yes!
So be it, and Amen!Env action & spirit discipline

Sermon delivered April 26, 2015 by Karl Perrin at the Unitarian Church (UC) of Vancouver, BC.

In 1993, Karl Perrin devoted himself to fighting global warming. He chaired the UC Environment Committee from 1995-2012 and has served on the Canadian Unitarian Council’s Environment Monitoring Group since its inception. After years of co-chairing the Pilgrimage to Burns Bog, the UC gave him the Distinguished Service Award.
Karl and his wife Ann, live on Burnaby Mountain.