Category Archives: Seeking Clarity

The B.C. salmon farming conundrum

An overview

by Stan Hirst

The 21st century has brought the planet an extraordinary share of environmental conundrums. Think ozone layer, climate change, outbreaks of vector-borne diseases and dumping of plastic litter on a global scale.

What makes them “conundrums“? Several reasons, but the stand-out is the underlying conflict between two very different systems. One is our social addiction to widespread exploitation of natural resources to support our burgeoning populations and lifestyles. The other is a desperate attempt to conserve what is left of our natural ecosystems and to protect them against increasing, often overwhelming, levels of exploitation. The critical element in this conflict is that the two processes – exploitation and conservation – are promoted by two different segments of society with widely differing philosophies and views on ecosystem resources.

British Columbia has its share of these, plus a few more like the proliferation of fossil fuel pipelines, increasing incidences of forest fires, and the pervasive loss of productive agricultural lands. One conundrum, however, has a particular regional west coast theme – the proliferation and impacts of marine-based salmon farms.

Marine salmon farming began in B.C. on a commercial basis in the 1970s. Most farms were initially sited along the Sunshine Coast and on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The 1980s saw expansion of the industry into waters near Campbell River, Sayward and Port McNeill. As the industry became established it adaptively managed its operations and upgraded pens, equipment and technology through the 1990s and on to the present.

Today, about 75 salmon farms are in production along B.C.’s southern coasts. An estimated 76,000 tonnes of Atlantic salmon are grown annually. B.C. salmon farmers grow 60% of all salmon raised in Canada, the production contributing approximately $1.2 billion per year to the province’s economy and accounting for about 5000 jobs, most in rural coastal areas. Farm-raised Atlantic salmon is now B.C.’s highest valued seafood product and the province’s top agricultural export (sales over $400 million in 2015) going to 11 countries (85% to the USA and about 15% to Asian markets).

Shortly after the arrival of open-net pen salmon farms in B.C. (mid-1980s), sockeye salmon populations, in particular the famed Fraser River runs, began to decline and have continued to do so for most of the past 20 years.

A diverse and vocal lobby of aquatic ecologists, conservationists, salmon fishermen and First Nations coastal communities have pinned much of the blame for the declines of wild salmon on the siting of salmon farms. Many open-net pens holding very dense numbers of Atlantic salmon and other species lie in close proximity to the traditional coastal migration routes followed by wild sockeye and chinook runs.

Marine and estuarine water currents flow freely through the pens, allowing wastes, chemicals and pathogens to move freely back and forth. Specific concerns mentioned frequently by fish-farm opponents include:

  • the ease of disease transmission and sea lice infestations from captive to wild fish;
  • conflicts between salmon farms and marine mammals like seals and sea-lions;
  • pollution from large and concentrated volumes of manure released from fish pens into the marine environment;
  • escapes of non-native fish, and the displacement of local fishermen;
  • concern for B.C.’s wild salmon fishing, a $1.4 billion growth industry.

Opponents further point out that research in the United Kingdom and Norway has also identified declines of wild salmonids in the presence of farmed salmon pens.

Additional objections to the marine farming of Atlantic salmon have followed. One concern is the impact on stocks of other marine fish which are harvested as a source of feedstock. For a farmed salmon industry the size of that in B.C. an estimated 6 billion forage fish need to be harvested to bring one crop of farmed salmon to harvest. By one estimate 19 of the top 20 global forage fish stocks have been fished to near depletion levels for the manufacture of feed for farmed salmon.

More recently, health concerns have been raised regarding the composition of farmed salmon as a human food source. Whereas wild salmon eats other organisms found in its natural environment, farmed salmon is given a processed high-fat feed in order to produce larger fish. The result is that farmed Atlantic salmon have double the fat and saturated fat contents of wild Pacific salmon, and can absorb marine and other toxins in the high-fat content flesh.

Naturally the well-organized and well-funded interests which own and manage B.C.’s salmon farming industry have reacted to the allegations with vigour.

On the fish disease transmission issue they point out that viruses present in B.C. farm-raised salmon are all naturally occurring in the Pacific Ocean, are not harmful to fish and are not a risk to human health. They concede that, since farmed fish are kept in very high densities, some viruses pose health risks to farmed salmon. Farmed fish health is consequently monitored regularly by farm company veterinarians and by federal and provincial agencies.

Specifically, they point out that:

  • thousands of screenings of wild, hatchery-raised, and farm-raised salmon have been completed in B.C., Alaska and Washington State, none of which has confirmed the presence of any exotic fish viruses or diseases;
  • salmon producing members of the BC Salmon Framers Association have developed a viral outbreak management plan to provide a quick and decisive industry-wide response if a virus of concern is ever detected in any B.C. salmon farm.
  • farmers participate in viral monitoring programs run by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) .

Since the early 1990s the Fraser sockeye returns had become increasingly unpredictable and by 2009 returns had reached low levels for the third consecutive year. Consequently the fishery was closed that year. It was generally conceded that fishing alone was not the cause of the decline. Levels of concern and political intensity reached a point sufficient to spur the federal government to action. They chose the classic bureaucratic response to a difficult situation – they appointed a commission of enquiry. On November 6, 2009 the Canadian Minister of International Trade announced a federal inquiry into the decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River. This became known as the Cohen Commission after its head, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen.

The Commission sat for 133 days of hearings, considered 573,381 documents (98% from the Government of Canada) containing more than 3 million pages, held 133 days of hearings, heard 892 public submissions and from 95 lawyers, granted standing to 21 participants and groups, generated 14,166 pages of transcripts, produced a 1191 page final report, and ran up a tab of $26 million dollars. It generated 75 recommendations of which 11 related to reducing impact of salmon farms on wild sockeye stocks.

Out of this huge mass of information, accusations, counter-accusations, analysis and reviews Justice Cohen drew the conclusions that “the potential harm posed to Fraser River sockeye from salmon farms is serious or irreversible. Disease transfer occurs between wild and farmed fish, and I am satisfied that salmon farms along the sockeye migration route have the potential to introduce exotic diseases and to exacerbate endemic diseases that could have a negative impact on Fraser sockeye stocks”.

Justice Cohen put forward 75 recommendations on dealing with the declining Fraser River salmon fishery. Eleven of these dealt specifically with the relationships between wild salmon and salmon farming (available in abridged form at this link). As of the end of 2016, i.e. a little over 4 years since acceptance of the Commission report, DFO has reported implementation of 9 of the 11 recommendations, some progress on one (prohibition of salmon farming in the Discovery Islands) and disagreement with one (mandate of DFO to promote salmon farming).

So where do we stand now, after nearly 40 years of penned salmon farming along the B.C. coast? I would say squarely in the middle of the conundrum.

On one side: the salmon farming industry in B.C. is now well entrenched federally and provincially, economically and politically. Failing any major financial, economic, political or ecological change, it will continue to operate as an important agro-industry.

On the other side: none of the major concerns expressed by conservationists, salmon fishermen, First Nations, scientists and anglers on the issues surrounding net-penned salmon (impacts on wild salmon, marine pollution, impacts on marine ecosystems, suitability as safe seafood for humans, etc.) seem to have been satisfactorily resolved.

Maybe we’ve arrived at an “I’m right and you’re an idiot” phase?

I look forward to some enlightening Elder resolution………



Genetically engineered crops: discord in the public square

by Stan Hirst

Image-front-cover_coverbookpageIn his recent book I’m right and you’re an idiot author James Hoggan describes the ‘public square’ as a literal and symbolic place where people meet to discuss important community matters and governance, and to participate in democracy. He notes that the modern public square, especially in relation to environmental concerns, has become toxic and polluted. Participants in public dialogue are typically strongly divided over issues based on background, belief, social situation and a host of other factors, and true dialogue and consensus-building suffer accordingly.

The long-standing dispute over genetically engineered (GE) food crops (=genetically modified (GM) or the commonly used acronym GMO’s [genetically modified organisms]) is an excellent example of such polarization leading to discord in the public square.

monsanto logoOn one side of the GE stand-off are the biotech multinationals Monsanto, Syngenta, DowDuPont and others who have monopolized the GE seed industry in North America and in many other parts of the globe. Their signature GE crops (also termed ‘biotech’ crops) are now grown on more than 180 million hectares globally. Over 40% of these are in the US, the remaining 60% are spread among 23 countries. Biotech multinationals are hugely profitable (e.g. Monsanto had gross revenues of $15 billion in 2015, with profits of $8 million), but these gains have come after decades of expensive genetic research and massive investments in biotechnology.

The application of GE crops is growing rapidly. More than 80% of soybeans, 75% of cotton, 29% of maize and 23% of canola cultivated globally are now GE. Seven other food crops – apples, sugar beet, papaya, potato, squash and eggplant – currently have varying proportions of GE modified plants in their annual harvests. Four GE crops are widely grown in Canada (canola, corn, soy and sugar beet. We also import small amounts of GE papaya, GE squash, GE cottonseed oil and some milk products made with the use of recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone.

What attracts farmers to GE crops over conventional varieties? The most commonly quoted reasons for US farmers who grow such crops are economic and environmental benefits – lower production costs, fewer pest problems, reduced use of pesticides, and better yields. One of several economic assessments puts the global farm income gain from GE crops from 1996 through 2014 at $150 billion.GO_Soybeans

The opposing factions in this public square comprise hundreds, possibly thousands, of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), various international organizations and groups, and many private and public groups and individuals. Their concerns are multifaceted and have been summarized by the FAO (Table 1).

Table 1
  • genes potentially being passed on to other members of the same species or even to other species;
  • genes potentially mutating with harmful effects;
  • potential destabilization and mutations in receptor plants;
  • “sleeper” genes potentially “switched on” and/or active genes “silent”;
  • potential interactions with wild and native populations;
  • potential impacts on birds, insects and soil biota and other non-target species.
Human health:
  • potential transfer of allergenic genes;
  • potential mixing of GE products in the food chain;
  • potential transfer of antibiotic resistance.
Socio-economic effects:
  • loss of access to plant material;
  • biotechnology products and processes potentially preventing access to public-sector research;
  • “terminator” technologies preventing farmers saving seeds for future seasons;
  • imposition of huge financial risks and burdens on peasant and family farmers in third world countries planting and harvesting GE crops.
Corporate behaviour:
  • corporate secrecy surrounding gene and crop research;
  • control and censorship of data and technical publications on GE.

Corporations typically counter the allegations by defending their legal right to protect their proprietary [and very expensive] biotechnical assets gained over many years as a result of extensive research and testing and associated high expenditures. They emphasize that their GE products are approved for sale and use by local, state, federal and international authorities, and that they comply with all laws, regulations and requirements levelled at their research, testing and marketing of GE products.  Both assertions are verifiably true.

There is a third set of players in this GE public square. These are groups, organizations, commissions, panels and the like which are established on the basis of academic or judicial credentials, have no vested interest in the commercial benefits or costs of GE foods, and are thus able to express unbiased observations and opinions.

One such group, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) appointed a Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops in 2014 with the objectives of examining the evidence regarding potential negative effects and benefits of currently commercialised genetically engineered (GE) crops and the potential benefits and negative effects of future GE crops. The Committee comprised 20 highly qualified scientists from universities and research organisations in the U.S. and abroad, plus seven professional support staff. The Committee heard presentations from 80 people with expertise and experience with GE crops, and read more than 700 comments and documents submitted by individuals and organisations. The Committee’s draft report was reviewed by 25 specialists from academia and government, both in the U.S. and abroad, and was published in final form in 2016. Their summary findings are shown in Table 2.23395-0309437385-450

Table 2
Agronomic and environmental effects of GE crops
  • Inconclusive evidence to connect GE crops and their associated technologies with adverse agronomic or environmental problems.
  • Some GE crops containing Bt toxin increased yields when insect pest pressure was high, but there was little evidence that GE crops resulted in rapid yearly increases in on-farm crop yields compared to the period before GE introduction. Use of Bt crops is associated with a decrease in insecticide applications but the evidence is equivocal for herbicide resistant crops.
  • Evolution of resistance to Bt toxins in GE crops by insect pests was associated with the overuse of a single herbicide.

[There is no evidence of cause-and-effect relationships between GE crops and environmental problems, but the complex nature of assessing long-term environmental changes makes it difficult to reach definitive conclusions. Declines in monarch butterfly populations was a case in point. Detailed studies of monarch dynamics failed to demonstrate adverse effects related to increased glyphosate use with GE crops, but there was no consensus among researchers that the effects of glyphosate on milkweed has not caused decreased monarch populations.]

Human health effects of GE crops

Research with animals and on chemical composition of GE foods reveal no differences that implicate a higher risk to human health from GE foods than from non-GE counterparts. Time-series epidemiological data do not show any disease or chronic conditions in populations that correlate with consumption of GE foods. The committee could not find persuasive evidence of adverse health effects directly attributable to consumption of GE foods.

There is some evidence that GE insect-resistant crops have benefited human health by reducing insecticide poisonings and decreasing exposure to fumonisins.

Social and economic effects of GE crops

Existing GE crops have generally been useful to large-scale farmers of cotton, soybean, maize and canola. Benefits to smaller-scale farmers have varied widely across time and space, and are connected to the institutional context in which the crops have been deployed. Small-scale farmers were more likely to be successful with GE crops when they also had access to credit, extension services and markets, and to government assistance in ensuring accessible seed prices.

So, how are we to explain the huge discrepancies between what GE food opponents say about the issue and what emerges from a (hopefully) cool and rational appraisal of the data and the facts?  Three items stand out from a long look at Table 1 above (possibly more if one keeps looking).

The words ‘potential‘ and ‘potentially‘ appear many times in the list of environmental and public health issues. Translation = it appears in the text books but nobody has been able to prove it in real life.  That is not all that remarkable for something as intricate and complicated as a gene and the way it expresses itself in nature.  The NAS found no conclusive evidence of a linkage between a GE food and a human health issue, but the general public seems a long way from understanding that.

I’ve heard the view from Elders that researchers are prevented from examining the GE-health issue because they’re denied access to the modified genes which are ‘owned’ and ‘protected’ by the multinational biotech companies.  The companies do indeed hold patents to their modified plant genes, but a researcher interested in searching for a link between a GE food or substance and human health doesn’t need the gene, they just need the genetically modified food, and that’s available from the supermarket.  Another Elder asserted that there is no money available for such research. Possibly true, but I note that Canada is hardly short of money for other public health research, e.g. we spend $400 million per year on geriatric drug research.

Multinational biotech companies have become notorious for their corporate behaviour, including secrecy, use of patent laws to protect their seeds and products, no reluctance to use legal strong-arm methods against opposing groups, and inept public relations (all well summarized by Lessley Anderson) The name ‘Monsanto‘ has become a label for negativity, and that does (but should not) obscure the true facts surrounding genetic modification of crops and public health specifics.

One seldom hears the same negative tones about GE crops from farmers (who actually plant and harvest them) as from environmental activists and the general public who generally get their information from the internet and the popular press. When farmers focus on the negative issues of GE crops it involves the extra costs involved and the fact that they have no propriety rights to any seed harvested from GE crops planted on their lands.  The latter issue has been a huge stumbling block for GE crop deployment in Asia and Africa.

GE corn

In his book James Hoggan summarizes a number of key learnings on public discourse, dissonance and advocacy gleaned from many specialists in the field of communications, sociology and public affairs.  He stresses the need to break out of the advocacy trap and to steer well away from self-justification.  All the points in the book have some bearing on the understanding of the discord surrounding GE crops and foods.

On the basis of what I’ve read about the whole subject of GE crops as well as what the hopefully objective experts in the form of the U.S. Academy of Sciences have to say on the issues, I suggest there is one missing item of cardinal importance in improving the quality of discourse – public understanding.

Genetics is a technically difficult subject to understand from the public perspective, and becomes even more convoluted when moving to the technicalities (and language) of genetic modification.  Throw in more technical issues in the form of ecological explanations of  things like chemical weed control, lots of economic arguments around who wins and who loses when GE crops enter the competitive market-place, and lots of mistrust around who is responsible for approvals and vetting of GE crops, and the dissonance pot boils merrily away.  I doubt there is a stronger case to be made for seeking common ground between proponents, opponents and the public than in this subject.


Toxic discourse in the public square – searching for common ground

by Stan Hirst

An overcast morning in August: the Suzuki Elders gathered at the Rivendell Retreat Centre on Bowen Island, B.C. to debate the recent book I’m Right and You’re an Idiot – The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How To Clean It Up.

In the book author James Hoggan notes that the modern public square, especially in relation to environmental concerns, has become toxic and polluted. Participants in public dialogue are typically strongly divided over issues based on background, belief, social situation and a host of other factors, and true dialogue and consensus-building suffer accordingly.

The Elder retreat set itself the task of thinking seriously about how to move towards understanding or agreement on thorny issues, finding a way to work together, or at least respectfully differ. Discussions were focused by considering real developments which currently create deep discord in B.C., including the Peace Site C hydroelectric project, salmon farming along the B.C. coast, and the use of nuclear energy.

As reported in post-retreat evaluations, the Elders never actually found anything resembling common ground within these examples. They did find that emotions clouded the issues and that facts were divisive! I personally came away from the retreat wondering if common ground could realistically even exist between proponents of large disruptive projects like estuarine salmon farms or hydroelectric dams and the eco-minded segments of our diverse population.

What actually is this common ground of which we speak so easily?

Historically, common ground was an actual place which was available to everyone, e.g. a village square or the verge of a local thoroughfare, a neutral zone where important issues were discussed or argued. Today it means simply a level of accord around a specific theme or themes between persons or groups otherwise in opposition to one another.

Common ground requires a minimum set of characteristics if it is to function effectively. These include things like respect, trust, acknowledgement and/or mutual interest. As the name suggests, there must be some form of commonality in views surrounding key issues. Features common in modern social interactions such as suspicion and polarization have to be set aside. Finding common ground with others does not necessarily mean finding absolute agreement. Common ground is “shareable” ground whose boundaries are marked by a range of actions that all can live with.

When large actions such as Site C or the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion are pushed into the public arena, finding common ground typically takes a back seat behind much more prominent and aggressive actions. These include public testimony, bureaucratic manoeuvring, media initiatives, community forums, lobbying, electoral politics, litigation, boycotts and demonstrations.

The problem we face in finding common ground in such cases is basically that the factions opposing the proposed projects are actually created by the projects themselves. For example, the ranchers, homesteaders, hunters and anglers in the lower Peace River valley have been going about their business for more than a century. The First Nations bands using the area for hunting, trapping and exploitation of other natural resources have been doing so for centuries. Only when the threat of losses to the resources they rely upon looms as a reality do they form into groups to oppose the damming of the river by a power utility. The success of such environmental opposition groups is actually reliant on how well they can make their case against the project in the public arena (and often in the legal arena as well), and this means they accentuate the differences between the project goals and their own interests so as to make a stronger case. This is the exact antithesis of finding common ground!

Some might point out that agreements are often made between proponents and antagonists on specific issues, and that this necessarily means they have reached ‘common ground’, at least on that specific issue. For example, in the Peace Site C area some First Nations bands whose traditional trap lines would be impinged by the rising waters of the Site C reservoir have signed agreements with B.C. Hydro and have accepted cash payments as compensation for their losses. Is this a form of finding ‘common ground’? I suggest it is more a case of opponents making a rational decision between options and then joining the proponents!

It seems to me that at least part of the ‘common ground’ problem is that we seek it in the wrong place. Expecting to find common cause between a developer engaged in actually building and operating a project such as a hydroelectric dam or a fish-farm and the opponents of such projects is like expecting a wide receiver who has just caught the ball to stop and have a dialogue with the opposing linebacker. In truth, the faster and smoother the execution the better the outcome, no matter who wins the encounter!

Where we could and should seek out common ground between groups with differing objectives is where there are options available to reach mutually acceptable goals. Thus, moving a farmed salmon operation from ocean-based net-pens to a land-based system using tanks and recirculating flows might be a workable common goal for an aquaculture operation and for any opposing environmental groups. This would remove the threat of sea-lice and virus infections carried by farmed salmon being transferred to wild salmon migrating past the sites of the net pens, It could still be a viable and economic basis for aquaculture. The proponents might express a level of unhappiness at the added expense of having to build an on-land water purification system, but would find their commercial operation no longer in disfavour with local communities, commercial marine salmon fisheries and the concerned public.

The challenge facing humanity is to sustain the processes of economic development and poverty eradication while shifting gears to avoid greater damage to the environment from such economic activities. Developed countries must preserve their achievements while shifting the focus to more sustainable development and ever-diminishing environmental impacts. Developing countries must continue to raise their people’s living standards and eradicate poverty while containing increases in their ecological footprints. Both must adapt to the impacts of the damage already done. Now there is common ground worthy of the name!



Food Security in the 21st Century: Are we prepared?

April  18,  2018.  Fifteen elders from the North Shore ElderCollege Society and the Suzuki Elders sat around paper-strewn tables in the Capilano Library, North Vancouver, and considered a topic of great importance to elders and to everyone else.  How secure is our food supply and what should we be doing to ensure its security in the forthcoming years?

We were guided in the deliberations by three experts on the topic:

  • Grant Rice – Education and Planning Coordinator for Burnaby Food First, a group of community members and local agencies working together to bring food security to Burnaby, B.C.
  • Karen Morton, President of EcoUrbia, a not-for-profit organization advocate for local food and organics, extended producer responsibility, ethical e-waste recycling and waste reduction strategies.
  • Tara Moreau, Associate Director, Sustainability and Community Programs, UBC Botanical Gardens.

After some hours of deliberating and scribbling notes on scratch-pads we found ourselves the proud possessors of a trove of questions,  answers to some of them and, perhaps most significantly, a series of themes on food security which urgently need to be addressed in the coming months and years.

This was the Suzuki Elders second effort at a community deliberation on food security (the first is described at this link).  It has become apparent to us that the subject is complex, multifaceted and often misunderstood.  It urgently needs to be discussed and teased out a lot more.

In the interest of establishing a baseline of questions and items which need to be acknowledged and explored further, we proudly present here…..ta daaaa …. our itemized notes.



We would much appreciate questions and comments on what we’ve achieved so far.  It is our intention to keep the community focus on the theme of food security.  Without it, we won’t get too far into the future.


How do we know when we’ve achieved a consensus?

GMO rejection seen through the lens of climate change denial

by Peggy Olive

Relying on the opinions of experts is something we do because we’re not know-it-alls. Through social media the Suzuki Elders have recently discussed genetically-modified (GM) foods. Are they safe for us? Do they improve crop yields as touted? Are they increasing the use of pesticides and herbicides or reducing their use? Are they affecting our environment or livelihoods? Information on the web is often contradictory or misleading, yet an accurate perception of the extent of scientific consensus is essential for public support for or against GM foods.

Contradictory information confuses us, and sowing doubt can stand in the way of government regulation, a ploy used so effectively by the tobacco industry. But let’s look at the example of the Global Warming Petition Project in which 31,000 scientists rejected the consensus opinion on human-induced global warming. They all signed an on-line petition in 2008 urging the US government to reject all global warming agreements on the grounds that they would hinder the advance of science and technology and damage the health and welfare of mankind.

A closer look at this petition is instructive. The only requirement to be listed in the petition was an undergraduate degree in any kind of science. According to the US Department of Education, over 10 million people earned a science degree between 1971 and 2008. So while 31,000 people signed this petition, that’s actually only 0.3% of Americans with science degrees. And, most importantly, only 0.1% of those 31,000 were climate scientists. So the claim that the Global Warming Petition Project disproves the scientific consensus is a myth that uses the technique of a magnified minority. This involves making the petition seem like a large number, when in reality it represents a tiny percent of the scientific community. This myth also uses fake experts which conveys an impression of expertise – 31,000 scientists – when, in fact, 99.9% of the signatories aren’t climate scientists”.

I recently completed a six-week course called Making Sense of Climate Science Denial 101 offered by EdX, a consortium of universities providing free on-line courses on over 500 topics. I can highly recommend this particular course. The material in the preceding paragraph was taken from the first week in the series which introduced us to the idea that we need to look critically at what has been presented to us as “fact”. Science isn’t based on a show of hands, but on evidence. Evidence is published in peer-reviewed journals by scientists who are experts in their field. WConsensus2hen evidence from many different sources points to the same conclusion, and when evidence stands the test of time, consensus develops. It is evidence that is responsible for agreement by 97% of climate scientists that humans are causing current global warming.

As an aid to help us identify science “myths” we were given a chart indicating the many ways in which we might be misled by an argument or a “statement of fact”. John Cook, from the University of Queensland and course organizer, came up with the acronym FLICC which stands for Fake Experts, Logical Fallacies, Impossible Expectations, Cherry-Picking and Conspiracy Theories. As an example, when twenty thousand American physicians were quoted in the 1950s as saying “Luckies are less irritating”, this was a red herring intended to distract us from the real questions about smoking safety.

One recent report on GM crops discussed by the Suzuki Elders was entitled “Hundreds of Scientists Warn: No Consensus On Safety of Genetically Modified Crops.” I was tempted to use the FLICC template article to test the hypothesis: what is the evidence for a lack of consensus among experts on the safety of GM foods?FLICC

No Consensus: The European Network of Scientists claims no consensus on this question. This group of 68 members offers an on-line petition that anyone with a Ph.D. can sign agreeing that there is no consensus. They also allow you to fill in your own credentials, and in their publication they report that 300 scientists say there is no consensus. I regard this petition as similar to the petition by 31,000 scientists who claim there is no human-induced global warming, a magnified minority. It doesn’t mean that The European Network is wrong, just that this petition doesn’t prove there is a lack of consensus among experts.

Consensus: Obviously the GM foods industry supports a consensus that GM foods are safe. An argument has been made that safety tests are performed by biotechnology companies responsible for their commercialization and therefore their results are suspect. This could be characterized as a conspiracy theory, but I see this more as a myth of impossible expectations. Companies that develop a GM corn plant, a new drug, a car, etc. are required to test them for safety. It is in their own best interests to develop safe products, and they are the ones with the funds and motivation to perform the work. The more relevant question is whether tests performed by industry are designed to reveal all potential health effects, especially over the long term. This is the mandate of regulatory agencies that approve human consumption of GM foods, and this is probably where our concerns should lie. The World Health Organization has published a comprehensive collection of internationally adopted food standards, guidelines, codes of practice and other recommendations for GM foods. These standards are subject to change as more information comes forward. According to the WHOGM foods currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health.”

Consensus, maybe? In 2012, the Board of Directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science released a statement on the safety of GMO foods. “The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe.” However, this was only a small group of scientists, mostly non-experts in the field of genetic modification of crops and toxicology testing. It should be viewed critically, perhaps seen as a magnified minority in the chart. In fact, it did not represent the view of all AAAS members since it was later challenged in an open letter by a group of 21 scientists, again, a minority of AAAS scientists. Even the 2015 Pew Research Institute report showing that 88% of AAAS members and scientists (numbers now up to 5750) believe that GM foods are “generally safe” could be seen as opinion.

So what is the best way to find out whether there is, or is not, a scientific consensus? If we follow the approach used to show that 97% of climate scientists believe that humans are responsible for current global warming, we would examine all the published, peer-reviewed literature available on the safety of GM foods. For the global warming consensus studies, scientists were able to examine 11,944 papers published worldwide between 1991 and 2011, reporting that fewer than 3% of the papers rejected human-caused global warming. Similar studies were reported by two other groups, enhancing consensus.

Consensus4Unfortunately, much of the data we would need for GM food safety assessments are not readily available in peer-reviewed journals, and there is a bias against publishing negative results. Safety questions are applied to each GM food because proving one safe doesn’t mean all are safe, or vice versa. That would be jumping to conclusions. Government regulatory agencies do perform an independent analysis of GM crop safety data supplied by the manufacturer, but it is likely that additional studies focused on long-term effects, allergenicity, and antimicrobial resistance may be required to quell concerns and to develop a broader scientific consensus on the safety of GM foods.

This was also the conclusion of the study published in Environmental Sciences Europe. “The scarcity and contradictory nature of the scientific evidence published to date prevents conclusive claims of safety, or of lack of safety, of GMOs. Claims of consensus on the safety of GMOs are not supported by an objective analysis of the refereed literature.” I find it difficult to detect a logical fallacy in this conclusion, although further tests and more regulations do not necessarily lead to safer products or to conclusive proof of safety.

Hidden within this conclusion is another problem which will be just as difficult to tackle: how do we define food safety? The U.S. Food and Drug Administration website has an interesting disclaimer. The FDA says it takes no position on perceived risk of GM foods. It simply approves those that are considered safe by their standards. The recent post on this blog by Stan Hirst provides some insights into the perceptions of GM food safety.Consensus5

Will scientists or the public accept “generally safe” and “not likely to present risks” without a better understanding of potential risks? A consensus on GM food safety will likely require a more open discussion of what constitutes acceptable risk. This assumes that adverse effects can be demonstrated on which to base risk estimates, by no means a sure thing. As I learned in Climate Change Denial 101, consensus can take a long time to develop, and as my husband quipped after reading this blog, it’s often easier to question findings than to reach conclusions.


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!

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