More than two decades ago, biotech scientists revealed a seemingly miraculous answer to the agricultural industry's biggest challenges — genetic engineering.
But the tide is turning against crops that are genetically modified to be herbicide tolerant and insect resistant over fears that they may be detrimental to human health.
Those opposed say there's a direct correlation between the timing of scientifically generated foods and an explosion in child diagnoses of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), allergies and even Asperger syndrome.
Now an increasing number of people and politicians are calling for a ban on GE foods. And two scientists coming to Kamloops Wednesday as part of a B.C. and Alberta tour hope to help local GE opponents get more people on the bandwagon.
"There are serious dangers from developing, growing, cultivating genetically modified organisms, which nature itself does not permit," said Dr. Shiva Chopra, a former Health Canada senior scientific adviser who blew the whistle on bovine growth hormone and other products endangering public health.
On Sept. 19, the Union of B.C. Municipalities narrowly passed a resolution requesting that the province ban GE crops and animals and "to declare, through legislation, that B.C. is a GE Free area."
Kamloops organizers gathered 300 local names on a petition in support of that motion.
GE Free Kamloops formed last May and has been spreading concerns at gatherings friendly to the cause, like the Farmers Market.
The group partnered with the Thompson Rivers University Eco Club to host the scientists' presentation at TRU's Clock Tower Theatre Wednesday at 7 p.m.
GE Free Kamloops founding member Steven Hurst, a 36-year-old family man with a love for organic farming, said he's taking up the fight for his three young children.
"Pretty much the whole ecosystem just thrives in those kind of environments where you're eliminating the chemical inputs," said Hurst.
"It's labour intensive, but it's a labour of love. And when it's all said and done you're enjoying a much better product and feeling good about keeping everything in balance."
A MAGICAL SOLUTION
A revolution in agriculture was launched in earnest 25 years ago when Monsanto began marketing the first commercialized products using the biotech industry's solution to weeds
— the No. 1 preoccupation of all growers in the Western world.
At the time, 80 per cent of pesticides used on crops were aimed at controlling the choking plants.
Scientific advancements would now allow an herbicide deemed innocuous to kill weeds without affecting crops.
Also problematic, although less so, were insects.
The answer again was to genetically alter foods and grains to be "naturally" insect resistant. They didn't even need to spray — the insecticide was built into the crop.
Today, GE technologies have completely taken over agriculture in many parts of the world.
More than 90 per cent of soybeans worldwide and 80 per cent of corn, canola and most other big crops are now genetically engineered to be herbicide tolerant.
About 20 per cent are engineered to be insect resistant.
More than 17 million farmers use biotechnology globally — 15 million of them in developing countries, according to Jennifer Armen, a 30-year biotech industry insider and botanist, mycologist and plant pathologist.
Biotech proponents say the advancements should be applauded for achieving everything from creating prettier produce to saving vulnerable populations from starvation.
"Biotechnology can help us fight disease, grow food in the face of drought and help people eat healthier," Armen stated in a column published last fall in an industry magazine.
The future seems bright for GE foods as several new products are reviewed such as a pink pineapple and a potato resistant to black-spot bruising and blight.
Armen herself played a hand in creating the Arctic apple — a non-browning apple that is produced by Okanagan Specialty Fruits and currently being tested in the U.S.
For that product, scientists managed to "turn down" the enzyme that directs the fruit to brown once cut and exposed to air.
The result, said Armen, is a more attractive apple that promises to do for fruit "snackability" what the baby carrot did for vegetables.
The hype is appealing, yet the Arctic apple has still become a flashpoint for those against genetically engineered foods.
From the very beginning, some scientists were leery of genetic modification.
Dr. Thierry Vrain, who joins Chopra for the Kamloops presentation today, is a retired soil biologist and genetic engineer who, after a 30-year career with Agriculture Canada, no longer supports GE technology.
Vrain points to documents published in 1996 where research scientists with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) predict that engineered foods would contain rogue proteins that could be toxins, causing allergies and nutritional deficiencies.
The rogue proteins in GE foods remain unidentified by the scientific community and are just treated as "background noise," said Vrain.
But it could be that the body, unable to digest the foreign properties, responds by triggering histamines and the immune system.
Allergies and food resistances quickly follow.
"Over the past 10 to 15 years there's been evidence building up . . . that there are some problems, there are some dark clouds," said Vrain.
Also problematic is genetic pollution. Engineered bacteria finds its way into soil bacteria and eventually into human gut bacteria.
That can lead to antibiotic resistance in people, the cause of so-called superbug infections.
"The medical community is very worried," said Vrain. "We should all be worried that we're losing antibiotics because of the building up of anti-biotic resistance in the bacterial populations."
Other serious consequences are weeds and insects that have become resistant to herbicides and insecticides.
"Now farmers are stuck with a technology that's not effective," said Vrain.
Contamination of neighbouring, non-GE crops is another problem.
It's nearly impossible to keep plants from cross pollinating, said Vrain. In 2010, Canadian flax seeds were shut out of the European Union — the industry's largest market at $320 million a year — after traces of a genetically modified form of the crop called Triffid was found in shipments despite being ordered destroyed 10 years previously.
(More on Europe's stringent GE rules later.)
Scientists diverge wildly on the benefits and drawbacks of genetic engineering.
Chopra and Vrain say that's because some of the findings are solicited and paid for by the biotech industry, undermining objectivity.
They also point to a climate of intimidation.
In his presentation, Vrain talks about a Scottish scientist who, two decades ago, tested rats that were fed with GE foods for several months.
When dissected, he discovered serious organ damage in the rodents — most notably to testicles, ovaries and uteruses.
"That was the first alarm bell," said Vrain. "There have been many more since."
Scandal broke out when the scientist spoke publicly about his findings because they hadn't been peer-reviewed and published in traditional scientific fashion.
He was subsequently fired.
Chopra said the Canadian government shouldn't allow GE foods onto grocery shelves based on its own laws.
"Under Canadian law, any product that directly or indirectly gets into the human body must be proven to be safe and effective as proclaimed," said Chopra.
GE foods have not been tested comprehensively enough to make that claim, he said.
Kamloops MP Cathy McLeod said she has heard concerns from a few dozen constituents through emails and a protest outside her office.
McLeod's general response is to promote the benefits of GE foods and explain the rigorous, scientific approval process that Health Canada undertakes before GE foods are allowed.
"We need to feed the world and grow more food with less," she said.
According to Health Canada's website, throughout a seven- to 10-year process GE food manufacturers and importers must submit data to Health Canada for a pre-market safety assessment.
ANTI-GE MOVEMENT GAINS MOMENTUM
The Europe Union has been a frontrunner in the Western world in addressing popular anxiety.
The only GE crop actually cultivated in Europe is an insect resistant maize, which has grown in Spain since 1998 before the serious backlash had begun.
Several European countries have since banned the growing of GE crops outright.
The EU as a whole has a zero-tolerance policy regarding unapproved genetically modified organisms and has turned away Canadian and American shipments.
That's the kind of caution Vrain wants Canada to adopt and that idea is gaining an increasing amount of support.
The GE Free B.C. organization states it has precedent for an outright ban going back to 1991 when Hudson, Que., banned cosmetic pesticides on private lands and was backed by the province.
In its response to the UBCM resolution requesting provincial legislation against GE foods and animals, the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture stated in an email that it is sharing those opinions with the federal government.
The UBCM debate, states the email "really emphasized that B.C.'s mayors and councils hold many different views."