Run for your lives–the killer Canola has escaped!

In mid August, a host of frantic tweets on Twitter reported a great disturbance in the Force. Being the intrepid green chronicler that I am, I immediately sprang into action—and made coffee.

The disturbance? Well right now, as you read this, genetically modified rape plants (Brassica spp., a European plant of the mustard family) rampage about the countryside, tormenting roadsides in North Dakota (it’s been off the Canadian reservation for years). With a name like rape it must be inherently evil, which is why it usually goes by its trade name–Canola. Canadian agricultural scientists bred it for less acid. Canola stands for “CANadian Oil, Low Acid.”

The Mother Nature News site breathlessly related, “This is the stuff of my nightmares. Genetically modified (GM) plants escaping the confines of agriculture and invading the wild.” On its website, the Sierra Club uses up its hyperbole allotment going for simple lizard-brained terror, calling GM crops, “radically new and environmentally hazardous technology.” And Greenpeace is just plain scared. “Do you ever eat major brands of bread, crackers or cereal? Are there canned soups or frozen dinners in your diet? If so, there’s a good chance you’re ingesting genetically engineered soy.” Oooh, boogedy-boogedy, I’m scared now.

That people already eat GM (also called GE for “genetically engineered”) soy, wheat, corn, rice, canola, tomato, sugar beets, cassava, and other crops with no ill effect should tell us something about their safety. Never mind that by definition most of our agricultural crops are ‘genetically modified’; corn and wheat bear little resemblance to the grasses they started from. Still, we just can’t be too safe when it comes to our health and that of the earth now can we? Well, yes, yes we can be too timid.

Sierra Club and others advocate the ‘precautionary principle’ toward GM crops; that is protection measures should be taken in advance “even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” The idea sounds so commonsensical, that being against it sounds crazy. Call me crazy. Rather, it’s expecting anything to be proven completely harmless is insane. As Michael Crichton noted, “Many of my friends who want to label or ban genetically modified foods because they have not been adequately tested, communicate with fellow advocates by cell phone, even though cell phones haven’t been adequately tested. Certainly they’ve never been proven safe.”

If the precautionary principle were to be applied to every food (organic or factory-farmed), we would have nothing on our plate or our drinking glasses. Did you know that “99.99% (by weight) of the pesticides we eat are naturally present in plants “? Did you know that the coffee I drink contains thousands of chemicals, of which 19 of the 26 that have been tested are known carcinogens in rodents . (How’d coffee squeak through?) Had we applied the precautionary principle in the early days of fire and cooking, we probably would still be sitting in trees delousing one another rather than irradiating food in microwave ovens.

So, if we eat genetically modified food already—and we do—without ill effect, is there anything to worry about? Well yes, biodiversity, say many greens. This argument, and the plants involved, flew that field a long time ago. They are not natural. Agriculture itself means domesticating wild plants and animals for our purposes. “The moral choices aren’t quite so easy. Biotech crops actually cut the use of chemicals, and increase food safety,” wrote family farmer Blake Hurst. “Herbicides cut the need for tillage, which decreases soil erosion by millions of tons. The biggest environmental harm I have done as a farmer is the topsoil (and nutrients) I used to send down the Missouri River to the Gulf of Mexico before we began to practice no-till farming, made possible only by the use of herbicides. The combination of herbicides and genetically modified seed has made my farm more sustainable, not less, and actually reduces the pollution I send down the river.” So more insects and animals can live when we grow GM crops. Less impact from pesticides and erosion means more biodiversity.

So, never mind that a thousand million meals from GM crops have been eaten with no ill effects; the precautionary principle must stringently applied no matter the cost. ‘Protecting’ Zambia from GM ‘Frankenfood’ led to very real starvation of thousands of Africans at the turn of this century. Margaret Karembu of the Department of Environmental Sciences at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, said, “Greenpeace has a very loud voice, but most of what they say is not factual.”

Dr. Florence Wambugu of Kenya puts the protest against GM more tartly, “You people in the developed world are certainly free to debate the merits of genetically modified foods, but can we please eat first?”


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