Wednesday, June 1, 2011

GMOs: A Silent Forest- David Suzuki's Take

Many watchers of PBS will remember Dr. David Suzuki's balanced and wonderful series, The Nature of Things. Suzuki, a geneticist by training, produced this cautionary video explaining his concerns about GMO trees. This is an articulate and eloquent 'discussion' about the need for clear scientific exploration of GMO science and technology. Suzuki touches on an issue that we'll explore later this week, the issue of the effects not just of superbug emergence, but the business practices involved. He also mentions the introduction of a termination gene (the so-called 'suicide gene' which prevents replanting) and the potential for grave problems from it. Later this week, I'll be posting a damning video about one of the largest biotech companies in the world by documentary filmmaker Marie Monique Robin, but I wanted to post Suzuki's video because it is an excellent visually accessible introduction to the controversies around GMOs from a scientifically credentialed and highly regarded figure.  This video is worth your watching time. 

From the Google posting of the trailer for Suzuki's video:

A Silent Forest - The Growing Threat of Genetically Engineered Trees (GE/GMO)
15:46 - 2 years ago
A SILENT FOREST: The Growing Threat of Genetically Engineered Trees (GE/GMO) This award winning documentary film explores the growing global threat of genetically engineered trees to our environment and to human health. The film features renowned geneticist and host of PBS' The Nature of Things David Suzuki, who explores the unknown and possibly disastrous consequences of improperly tested GE methods. (Emphasis Marzie's) Many scientists and activists are interviewed in the film, which serves as an effective and succinct tool for understanding the complex issue of GE trees. The film includes the testimony of many experts on the subject and serves as a valuable tool to inform students and those interested in environmental issues. The film has been well used in public forums, government as well as college and high school classrooms. The film includes an interview with Percy Schmeiser, who lost the rights to his own crops to Monsanto, when Monsanto seeds contaminated his fields. As Schmeiser says in the film: "It doesn't matter how it gets there, destroying your crop. All of your crop, becomes Monsanto's ownership and they can lay a lawsuit on top of it against you. Even if the contamination rate is 1%, all your other 99% of your crop goes to Monsanto. And that's what startled the world, how farmers can lose their rights overnight, an organic farmer can lose his seeds and his rights overnight, and get subject to a lawsuit." The film shows how farmers like Schmeiser and indigenous people may lose their way of life and belongings in the face of new biotech friendly science and legislation. A Silent Forest won first place in the EarthVision Environmental Film Festival and a First Place in the Wild and Scenic Environmental Film Festival. The film is created by award-winning director Ed Schehl who has been making and promoting documentaries on environmentalism and social justice for 15 years. As new crucial forms of legislation and urgent needs for action arise, this film makes information available to the general public. You can order the "A Silent Forest" video from: Thank you.«

The valid questions raised in the video above, and by other eminent scientists who, make no mistake, are not reactionaries against GMOs, are profound ones that involve serious ethical issues and equally serious scientific ones. Neither Suzuki nor any of the other major players in the area of the GMO debate (Dr. Ignacio Chapela, for example) are suggesting that we cease genetic engineering. In fact, what they propose is quite the opposite. What they are suggesting is that we do more research and stop the rush to market items when we have little understanding of their broad impacts. Remember all the studies on Golden Rice that Thelma Lee told you about? That was not just politics, but science at work. We need thorough studies on GMO crops. Golden Rice is an example of a GMO that has been thoroughly studied and whose impact is better understood. Also note that Golden Rice is a crop that most third world farmers will be able to afford and reseed as they wish, royalty free.

Think of it this way: would you want to have a rush to market a vaccine, for yourself, for your children, if we had no firm idea of what its longitudinal (horizontal) effects are? If it could make you, or someone of a different ethnic background, sicker rather than better in the end,  as intended? If it could protect you but sicken your cat or dog? As I said in last week's posts the broad reaction against GMO science is ignorant and fails to address the fact that the science that allows creation of GMOs is both amazing and useful. Like anything else in nature, science gives us tools which require considered handling. When handled with full understanding, we have eradicated diseases like smallpox, almost eliminated diseases like polio, have developed medications to help us fight tuberculosis or HIV, and we have learned much about agriculture and propagation. Give science time, and scientists the time and ability to do thorough research, is Suzuki's message here. It is a message that the world must listen to if we have a hope of overcoming some of the aspects of climate change that cannot be ignored any longer.

After you have watched this video, ask yourself why companies feel encouraged to develop GMOs with the wrong goals and why corporations are getting away with insufficient testing of these organisms, which will not likely be giving us what we will need in the future. Instead of focusing on making plants more drought resistant, more heat tolerant, more saline tolerant, providing successful and safe means of vaccination against the tropical diseases that will work their way into temperate climates (as vectors like mosquitoes spread encephalitis and malaria at more extreme northern and southern, formerly temperate, latitudes) we sadly largely hear about products that, in the end, are not only generating stronger pests and potentially damaging the integrity of heritage species which are a resource for future development, but which spread GMO genomes that are proprietary? Why are these the GMOs dominating our market, our media, and our the ag world? How will we, as citizen voices, change the practices that have allowed corporations to dominate the GMO field in such deleterious ways? How can we keep the baby when we discard the dirty bathwater?

There are no easy answers here and the stakes, within the next 20-30 years, will be high. As columnist Tim Lang asked just yesterday in The Guardian, "where is the 21st century approach to feeding the world?" This was in response to yesterday's Oxfam report Growing a Better Future, which finds that presently, one in seven people on the planet (925 Million, soon to be 1 Billion) are hungry and which suggests that the cost of many staple foods (wheat, rice, corn etc) will triple by 2030. Some raise the prospect of food riots. In the complex interplay between biofuels vs. edible crops, we have the overlay of looming climate change and what effects it may have on our food crops. Without direction, these issues will only worsen. Oxfam's new report contemplates these issues and poses a warning about where our efforts with respect to agriculture must be focused.

It is my feeling that Suzuki is right: we are wasting valuable time by allowing corporations to streamline and release GMOs that have been inadequately tested or perhaps tested under biased conditions. Not only do we risk tampering with the environment in ways that we cannot fully understand, but we are hampering the ability of scientists who are studying GMOs appropriately, by ruining the public perceptions and the political will to fund this type of science. As some (though not all) comments on Thelma Lee's blog posts on GMOs have shown, many people now regard GMOs with blatant negativity. The science is considered flawed and damaged, the products deleterious to public and environmental safety. Sadly, the effects of corporate greed and the rush to approve products that perhaps should have had much more thorough testing, are damaging the credibility of the science itself. 

Like any tool, genetic engineering can have positive or negative results and consequences. Without demanding better testing, supporting publicly funded, independent research, and fostering development of GMOs that address looming issues like climate change and disease, we are, as Tim Lang so accurately says, 'squandering the scientific possibilities'...

© Bright Nepenthe, 2011

No comments:

Post a Comment