FARE-talk is to provide an enduring conversation about contemporary topics relevant to food, agricultural, and resource economics.
Brady Deaton: (0:04) Welcome to FARE talk where we set out to provide enduring discussions on contemporary topics relevant to our economy, with particular emphasis on food, agriculture and the environment. My name is Brady Deaton Jr. of the Department of Food, Agriculture and Resource Economics at the University of Guelph. I will be your host.
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Brady: Today is March 11, 2015 and my name is Brady Deaton of the Department of Food, Agriculture and Resource Economics. Today I will be speaker with Dr. Rene Van Acker about GMOs in agriculture. Dr. Rene Van Acker is professor and associate dean of the Ontario Agriculture College at the University of Guelph. He is the Department of Plant Agriculture. He has published over 100 peer reviewed works. His research focuses on the co-existence of GM and non-GM crops, which makes him a perfect guest for today's discussion. Thanks for being here Rene.
Rene Van Acker: Thank you very much for having me.
Brady: (1:04) The other day, at Environmental Symposium, I heard you answer a student's question, and the question was, "If I walk in a grocery store, what products are GM products?"
Rene: Yea, and that's a very good question, and the reason I think it is a good question is because, I think people are unsure as to what is GM or not GM in terms of food.
Brady: And I should say, when I say GM, we are talking about genetically modified.
Rene: Right, genetically modified organisms or genetically modified crops that are then used to make foods, or genetically modified crops that are ready to eat foods. And on that later point, the vast majority of GM is in field crops. So things like corn, soybeans, in the case of Canada, canola for example. Those will be the key GM crops. Sugar beet would be another one. Very few of the items in the produce aisle would be GM, so papaya, perhaps, papaya sourced out of Hawaii would be GM. Perhaps some squash, although not all. Perhaps some sweet corn, although not all, and that would be about it. There is a pending deregulation of a GM apple, a non-browning apple, which has been deregulated in the US but not in Canada. So that may, in the future, appear on grocery store shelves, but not currently. So, the items that would be derived from GM crops would be things like margarine based on soybean or canola oil for example, or processed foods that contain some element of corn. Those would all be derived from, ingredients from GM crops. And consumers are sometimes wondering about that, and I think they have a perception driven, I suppose, by the media, that everything in the grocery store is GM, and that's not true. And an interesting point, in fact, is that none of our cereals, other than corn, if we consider that a cereal, are GM, so wheat, barley, oats, none of those are GM, rice is not GM, yet. So I think that also sometimes surprises people, they think everything is GM, just GM. Part of that confusion might also be that people know that varieties are bred to superior in some way, disease resistance, better yield, etcetera, and bred varieties, or cultivars, are not GM per se. Genetic modification can be used as a tool in breeding, but it falls under breeding, it is not breeding, and so I think sometimes that confuses people too.
Brady: (3:48) Well that's a good point. So genetic modification is some form has been going on for some time. What really distinguishes the way we talk about GMOs starting in the 1990s, with I guess [Rene: Right] the first GMO product was the tomato [Rene: Right] was it the tomato [Rene: Flavour Savour tomato], Flavour Savour Tomato, which didn't make it [Rene: Didn't make it very far, no] but not because of the response to GMOs right, more because it just wasn't
Rene: It just wasn't, yea, it just wasn't as effective a product as they thought it would be.
Brady: But so, something happened in the 1990s, that was kind of different from the kind of changes in genes that have been going on in agriculture I imagine for some time. Can you walk us through that a little bit?
Rene: Yea, and I think that's a very good point, and fundamental to why people are concerned about GM or not. So we have been selecting for bio-types or selecting for cultivars, in agriculture for a long long time. One might argue, you know, for over ten thousand years, since we have been farming, since the human race has been farming. But selecting and traditional breeding is different from GM or genetic engineering. And when we talk about GM, colloquially, genetic modification, we are referring to genetic engineering. And genetic engineering, we take to mean, recombinant DNA technology, and that is a very specific technology that was developed in the 70s, in the US, University of California, San Francisco, in fact, and what it does, it is technology that allows for discreet pieces of DNA to be isolated from one organism and then moved into another. It allows us to move DNA, pieces of DNA, across species boundaries. With traditional breeding, you don't have that ability. One of the traditional definitions of a species is that you, there is central compatibility among individuals in that species, and so you can cross-pollinate to use a colloquial term. With genetic engineering, we are not bound by that. So we can take a piece of DNA from a soil bacteria for example, and then transfer it into a plant or take a piece of DNA. The classic proof on concept was in the mid-80s, where they transformed a tobacco plant with genes from a fire-fly that allowed the tobacco plant to glow in the dark. It wasn't useful, but it was a very compelling demonstration of the power of that technology, and that's the key, is that it is a very powerful technology that allows us to move pretty much any piece of DNA from one species into another. So that opens up the possibilities in a way that we could have never imagined before, and it allows us to go way beyond traditional breeding. Plant breeders are excited by this, because they are always looking for genetic variation, to try and achieve certain ends, let’s say disease resistance, for example. So if they can find genes in another organism, beyond the species they are working with, to help them to achieve that, they think that’s great, and it can be great. People who worry, worry because we have never done this before. This may happen in very rare cases, in terms of this kind of broad crossing over of DNA from one species to another, maybe it could happen from soil bacteria, for example, into plants, very rare. So if we do this commonly, people start to ask questions like, "What are the unintended effects? What are the things we don't understand about doing that?" And so, you know, there is fear around that. To counter that, we have quite a bit of empirical evidence now, that shows that there are no apparent unintended effects of doing that, as we have been doing it.
Brady: (7:54) I think it is interesting to work through, maybe, for listeners, the first, what is often referred to as, the first wave [Rene: Right] of GM seeds, or GM crops. [Rene: Yep]. So, would you mind that and [Rene: Yea] and then talking about that a little bit, thanks.
Rene: Yea, so, and that's a good point. GM technology also changed the business, the seed business, because suddenly, in the seed industry, our technology developed in the industry, in agriculture became much more interested in plant breeding because of this new possibility. They also became much more interested in it because, with GM technology came the possibility for absolutely identifying your product. With recombinant DNA technology, development in the 70s, by the late 70s, there had already been a patent put onto a genetically modified bacteria. And so the possibility was there for patenting genetically modified organisms, and so the seed industry became interested in that. And that also drove the first wave of traits, the nature of those traits, because the seed industry understood that the customers were farmers. And so the first wave of traits were traits that would interest farmers, and so they were agronomic traits that provided operational benefits for farmers. And the two that are still, essentially, the predominant GM traits we have out there, almost the only GM traits we have out there are, would be insect resistance and herbicide tolerance. So the Bt trait is an insect resistance trait, and then, the Round-up Ready trait is a herbicide tolerance trait, glysophate resistance trait is also a herbicide tolerance trait. Those are the primary traits out there.
Brady: So just to get back to [Rene: Yea] your notion of what makes GMOs distinctly different [Rene: right] from the cross-breeding techniques that used to go on, Bt has I understand it is a bacterium
Rene: from bacillus genus bacterium, and so they extract the gene that then codes for what is called a cryo-protein, that resides in the gut of the insect, and in short, kills insects of a certain type, Lepidoptera. For example, the Round-up Ready traits was also derived from a bacteria, soil bacteria, genes that conferred resistance to glyphosate herbicide, common trade name Round-up, and so we were able to achieve those things, we were able to achieve those things using genetic engineering techniques, that they could not have done in other ways. But the traits were relevant to the direct customer, which was the farmer, and there was a rapid adoption of those products by the farmers, because they did offer real operation benefits.
Brady: (11:04) Let's talk about that. So with this first wave, it's widely adopted in countries like, with soybeans and corn, countries like the United States [Rene: Canada and the US]. What do we know from twenty years, or?
Rene: I think this is the twentieth season, yes.
Brady: What do we know about the health and environmental consequences of this first wave of genetically modified crops?
Rene: Well of course, these crops do undergo scrutiny in a deregulation process by government regulators, both the US and Canada. And so it's not like their just released without any consideration what so ever. SO regulators looks at what the possible environmental effects might be of a trait like the Round-up Ready trait in soybean. And their determination was that there was relatively no environmental risk, or no environmental risk from these things being released. And that’s likely true. If you look at the trait, Round-up resistance for example, how does that trait function in individuals in the environment, and what one might have to look at is how does that trait function in the environment in the absence of Round-up, in that environment. So there would be no selection for those individuals outside of the field where Round-up is applied, and so those traits would essentially be neutral in wild-type populations or in the environment, and so they wouldn't necessarily pose any environmental risk. For the Bt trait, that may not be true, you know, because the Bt trait does impact insects that feed, there is some controversy on what trait the Bt trait was having on monarch butterfly populations in the US and migrating populations of monarch butterfly. Because it is a non-discriminating trait in terms of impacting insects. Having said that, the environmental assessment of the Bt trait, was that the impact would be low, and in fact the scientific literature shows that although there can be some impact the impact would be very low. People do worry about other traits that may be coming into existence, and whether those other traits may have real environmental impacts. In terms of human health, the same is true. These traits are put through feeding trials for example, they are assessed in Canada by Health Canada, for example, and assessments are made as to whether there would be any impact to human health of consuming these. By in large, these traits don't impact the food products that they are a part of, at all. There is no DNA remaining in the food products, or the DNA is fully denatured in the food products that we derive, let's say margarine from soybean oil for example, or from canola oil. So there is no remnant, really, of the modification and so there is no impact on human health and there is no reason to think there would be. There have been a few studies, very few studies, looking at feeding whole-grains, so whole corn, ground, or whole soybean, ground, to rats to see if there is any effects. The studies, I would say, are at best non-conclusive, if we take them in a meta sense. There are not very many studies, but if we take those in a meta sense, it looks like there is really no impact of feeding things raw, and humans never eat these things raw like that anyways. So, I would say, the current consensus out there is that there is no human health risk from GM crops as we currently have them.
Brady: (15:01) What's interesting is that this concern is still, in some ways, has been from the very outset of the GM crops in the 1990s, till today, has persisted, and the concern that I am saying is really on the consumer end of it, despite perhaps, the preponderance of scientific evidence, with respect to, and I know you were limiting your comments [Rene: Right] to really the first wave of what we've been able to [Rene: Right] observe. And is part of that because when they first, when the groups first provided these seeds they targeted farmers. Farmers were readily adopted, but most people, the vast majority of people, are consumers, and they didn't respond the same. Why do you think that was?
Rene: Yea, it's a very good point, and you know, it has caught companies like Monsanto, for example, off-guard. Monsanto's customers are farmers, so they do not sell directly to the consumer, in fact in the US, fewer than half of Americans even know who Monsanto is, which seems surprising to people like you and me, I know, but it is because they are not a business to consumer company, they are a business to business company, the other business being farmers.
Brady: (16:21) So let's just back up, [Rene: Yea] I hadn't thought about that, but since we have listeners who may not know who Monsanto is, who is Monsanto?
Rene: Monsanto is the world's largest seed company.
Brady: Not the only one right?
Rene: Not the only one, no, no. They were a pioneer in commercializing GM seeds, GM technology and GM seeds. And so they have become the target, the poster company for those that are anti-GM, anti-GM activists, and yet, it is not necessarily justified, because they certainly are not the only seed company that is producing GM seeds, but they were the pioneer, they were the first and you know, Monsanto has a long tradition of being an avant-garde technology company, and they have a lot of pride in that, and so sometimes they are viewed as being aggressive in that regard, which I fans the flames, I guess, for activists groups. The other thing that has happened is that activist groups I think have recognized that there is a lot interest in the GM issue, and so one might argue that they have demonized, sometimes literally, demonized, Monsanto, and created a target for them to use to compel consumers, to compel people to pay attention to their activism or pay attention to their organization that is active against GM. But what is the evidence that is driving that, there's not much, it's pretty thin, I would have to say, and yet they can still appeal to people, because it is such a novel technology, because it is related to a food, and because it is somewhat esoteric, that the nature of the technology, they can readily, easily, cultivate fear amongst people, because people don’t understand the technology and so they can fear it, they can fear what they don't understand. So you know, you can have a short equation. Esoteric relatively unknown technology that is being used on your food, that alone [laughs] is sufficient to cause concern amongst people who don't know anything about it.
Brady: (18:44) And in particular, the first wave isn't targeted to them right? [Rene: Absolutely]. So if your columns say new product [Rene: Right] it’s got a novel technology, that is difficult for people that aren't, for example, plant scientists to understand, and then when you pick it up it's not clear to you exactly how it's delivering a product. So it seems like a recipe for a little bit of a problem from the start, in a sense, the design.
Rene: Absolutely and you know, and what is Monsanto to do. They have a hard time presenting a value proposition to the consumer who can readily say "Well look, the operational benefits you are providing the farmer are neither here nor there to me, I don't really care, I just don't want it." [Laughs] And, you know, they can, they have right to that proposition.
Brady: Just to review, so that is the ultimate kind of demander [Rene: yes] on the other end. The producers that they were selling to readily adopted. What were some of the things that made that so attractive to farmers?
Rene: Yea, and these are real things. This isn't made up stuff. We in fact did some work in Western Canada, looking at farmers’ adoption of GM canola, Round-up Ready canola in particular and...
Brady: (19:55) So Round-up Ready is...
Rene: Is canola that is genetically modified to be tolerant to glyphosate herbicide, or trade name Round-up, Monsanto’s trade name, Round-up. So you can spray your canola, with Round-up herbicide and pretty much kill all the weeds, and Round-up is very effective herbicide, extremely effective herbicide, and relatively environmentally benign herbicide as well, compared to many other herbicides. So, the value proposition for farmers was very easy for them to understand. They understood Round-up, but they have never been able to use Round-up over top of a crop, because Round-up kills most crops, pretty much all crops, that we commonly grow. So to say to a farmer "You know Round-up, you know how effective a herbicide it is, it's super effective. We are going to modify your canola crop, and then you can spray Round-up on your canola crop and kill all the weeds." That's all you had to say to farmers, and they were like, "What? [Brady laughs] Okay, sign me up," because and not only that, but in canola in particular, somewhat in soybean, but less so in soybean, weed management was challenging for farmers, they were having to use typically a soil applied herbicide and then one or two in crop herbicides to gain, I would say, good at best, good weed control in canola, and to turn that around and say you can do no soil applied herbicide, one shot of Round-up, and you're done, completely changed everything for farmers. They, not only that, but canola was a crop they wanted to crop more of because it was lucrative for them, and so to make it a lot easier for them to do that, really changed things for farmers. The last piece was that it also facilitated farmers growing canola in a reduced tillage, or direct seeding manner, because they no longer had to have the soil applied herbicide, so taking that out of the equation made it much easier for them to grow canola with a direct seeding system, which is what they were all moving to anyways. So you pull all of those things together and you have a very attractive value proposition for farmers, and it took them like five second [laughs] to compute that.
Brady: (22:18) About the reduced tillage, just to back up [Rene: right] for some of our listeners, is a potential environmental benefit [Rene: yes] that probably didn't, wasn't featured initially, [Rene: Initially, no], probably wasn't even anticipated [Rene: no, that's right]. But let's go over that, so we used to take a plow, we'd try to control weeds, we'd turn over all the soil. Walk me through then, how that works.
Rene: Right, yea. Very typically exactly like that. When you are growing an annual crop, you come in in the spring, and your typical, your traditional weed control method would be some sort of method, where you use a cultivator, a plow, this part of the world a plow perhaps, or a disc or something, and you till that soil up, for a couple of reasons. One is to create a seed bed that, where you can get good seed-soil contact. Two would be to control the weeds that were coming up prior to seeding, so you want to have a clean seed bed, no weeds. With a direct seeding system, or what some call a zero tillage system, you don't till prior to seeding, and you go in with a modified seeder that allows you to create good seed-soil contact through mechanical technology, where you are not tilling all the soil, you are leaving the soil more or less undisturbed. What you then do is you spray a herbicide to control all your weeds prior to seeding. In the case of canola, prior to Round-up Ready technology, you were applying a soil applied herbicide which typically needed to be incorporated into the soil so you had to use tillage, not only to control the weeds prior to seeding, but to incorporate your herbicide. Even if you wanted to move to a no till system, if you had to incorporate that herbicide you couldn't do it, and so to be able to eliminate that step opened up a new possibility for farmers growing canola. They were already doing that with their cereals, wheat in particular in Western Canada, but now for them to be able to do it with canola in their rotation, it just completed their rotation for them. So now they can do their entire rotation in direct seeding or zero tillage. Now I think that the statistics in Canada are that more than eighty percent of the acres are in reduced or no till direct seeding, which is tremendous. And that has been an unexpected benefit. You know, I wouldn’t say that Round-up Ready is responsible for zero tillage, that's not true, but Round-up Ready has facilitated a greater adoption of zero tillage, and it has facilitated having your whole rotation in zero tillage. The key benefit of zero tillage is not only moisture conservation, but also building up soil organic matter. And so the first hundred years, farming western Canada, we burned up about 50 percent of the soil organic matter. We are now rebuilding that soil organic matter, which is pretty astonishing, actually. We are rebuilding soil in Western Canada, we are not losing soil, we are rebuilding soil, which is a tremendous accomplishment, has tremendous environmental benefits and has tremendous economic benefits, in terms of the soil is your fundamental resource for agriculture. You know, that and light and rainfall. Those are the three things that you need so. So, there are those benefits, and Monsanto is now pretty quick to claim [laughs] those benefits as theirs. You know, to some extent, they can do that; it will certainly help the situation, yea.
Brady: (25:47) Getting back to the controversies, one of them, and I understand you were a bit involved in this, involved a farmer in Canada, and gets back to this identification issue, as well as property rights issues, but the basic story as I understand it, is that he was cultivating a GM seed, and Monsanto took him to court, and this was certainly not good press for [Rene: For Monsanto, no] for Monsanto, or for genetically modified crops in general. Can you just take us through the, you know, a brief version of that story [Rene: Right] and any thoughts you have on it.
Rene: It is an important story, because it highlights one of the key characteristics of the technology, which is what I said before. The technology allows seed technology companies, or seed companies, to absolutely identify what they own, because identification of a GM trait, or the DNA that you moved into that crop, you can prove that in a court of law. And so suddenly, companies had the ability to prove in a court of law whether somebody was in possession of their patented trait or not. Monsanto and I think the CEO of the company at the time, Shapiro, understood that very well, and understood the power of that. And they changed the business proposition for seed at the time, and introduced something called a technology use agreement. So now farmers not only purchase the seed and purchase the herbicide, but they had to also purchase a technology use agreement. They have to pay for it on a per acre basis. And in that use agreement, they were allowed to purchase the seed, so they purchased the use agreement first, that allowed them to purchase the seed and then they purchased the herbicide. But in that technology use agreement as well, they had to sign that they would not keep seed for re-use, that it would be illegal for them to keep seed for re-use. And so this changed things for farmers, farmers had a traditional, especially with publicly bred seeds, of buying the seeds, and then saving that seed, good seed from their crop, for replanting next year, etcetera, etcetera. You couldn't do that when you were buying GM seeds, because you were signing a contract that said it was illegal to do that, and if somebody else took that seed, you know, didn't sign a contract, but took that seed and then planted it, used it, they could be sued for possession of a patented entity, and use and possession of a patented entity. That is what happened to Mr. Schmeiser in Saskatchewan. His case is complicated, and I did testify in the original federal case is Saskatoon, on behalf of Schmeiser's lawyer, not that I was a proponent of his or anything like that, but they brought a range of seed samples to our lab in Manitoba, at the time, and we tested all those seed samples to see to what extent they were Round-up Ready or not, what proportion. Very convoluted story on the part of Mr. Schmeiser in how he sourced his seed for his crops (laughs) and it was weird. But, according to our testing, his story holds up (laughs) as weird as it is. According to Monsanto's testing it doesn't. That may be neither here nor there, what's important is that Monsanto was proving through a case like that they they could uphold the efficacy of their patent in a court of law, and that farmers, whether they directly purchased or not, if they were in possession of that patented entity, were liable for using it. That is a very important case. The case went all the way to Supreme Court. Mr. Schmeiser lost, although he lost in a 5-4 split, in Supreme Court. Louise Arbour who was on Supreme Court in the time wrote the dissention, and it’s very interesting and she highlights the challenges in patent law when it comes to entities that can self-replicate, self-disseminate and persist in the environment, living entities out in the environment. It's different that you know, an inanimate widget, or some sort. And so, patent law is probably not sufficient currently, to really deal with this, but none the less, the sign went out there that if you illegal use this patented seed, Monsanto will sue you, and you will lose. They have sued many, many farmers in the US and in Canada, most of those cases are settled out of court, a few have gone to court. I don't think Monsanto's ever lost a case, because they can't lose a cast, because they can absolutely prove ownership. So it’s interesting, it's changed the game for farmers, of how they've used seed as an input, and it has significantly reduced the extent to which farmers save their own seed. You know, and it depends on the crop, this is more in Western Canada. With corn, farmers haven't been saving seed for a long time, since we've been using hybrid corn in the 40s, because if you save seed off of hybrid corn, it segregates and you get a dog's breakfast. So farmers are used to buying corn seed every year, but with crops like even soybean, for example, you can save seed. Wheat, canola, oats, barley, you can save seed successfully, these are open pollinated species. So it changes the game for open pollinated species, fundamentally. Interestingly, you know, now that we are in the 20th season of GM, the farmer community has a different attitude towards that, by and large, than they did 20 years ago, and I think they are much more accepting of that value proposition, where the seed company has a right to recoup their costs, and profit, because they are providing a valuable product. And I think that farmers are more accepting now of that proposition than they were 20 years ago, and I think you will just see that continue, that culture continue to evolve to the point where there will be very little seed saving anymore, to some point, yea.
(32:14) I want to move the conversation, on to something that is particularly sensitive that I heard you say when we were at the Environmental Symposium, talking to students at the University of Guelph, you might have said it to me. But it is, you were concerned that this issue, as important as it is, and is representative of how we deal with new technologies and understand food, might be taking a lot of air out of the room with respect to other important issues, with respect that it is often brought up in the context of. So, food security, for example, how do you feed 9 billion people, in the not so distant future? You know, GM might have a role to play it might not, but there's a lot of issues here, and I was wondering if I am accurately getting you point.
Rene: Yea, no, no, I'm glad you brought that up. It is important, and in some ways GM can be a distraction from things that are really important. It's interesting, you know, that we are sitting here in 2015 which is the UN year of the Soils, and so, soil is really important. Soil and soil conservation, soil building, are really important issues, fundamental, critical, absolutely fundamentally important issues for life on the planet, human life on the plant. And so, is the importance of an issue like soil conservation being lost because the media is all talking about GM foods, where there may or may not be anything to worry about currently. But we should be worrying about the fact that, if we don’t change our practices on the planet, as a whole, we will lose all of our soils in less than a century. That is really, really important, because soil is not created in human time, it's created, as a whole, in geological time, and I don't know about you, but I don’t think I am going to live through geological time [Brady and Rene laugh]. You know, none of the human species will live through geological time. And so, whether we should be discussing the vagaries of meta-analysis on the human health impacts of GM, whether there is something there or not, or we should be really having a global convention conservation of soils, I would vote for the global convention on the conservation of soils, over that. Not that GM is not an important issue, sure it is important, particularly as we go into the future, not least of which the fact that GM is that novel technology, where you can, almost any trait you can dream of, lest perhaps self-locomotion in crops, or something weird like that, but almost anything you can dream of you can do through genetic engineering. And so, for sure, for sure, there will be traits that we will want not released into the environment, and not part of our food or feed stream.
Brady: (35:16) When you think about genetic engineering, and you think about the future, do you orient yourself to genetic engineering as a broad concept, or are you going to evaluate these trait by trait?
Rene: Yea, I think there should continue to be work done on the unintended impacts of trans genesis itself. So the act of transforming plants. One should, scientist, molecular biologists, should continue to explore whether there could be any unintended effects. I think there is a lot more known now, for example, about epigenetics, than there was 10 years ago.
Brady: Epigenetics means?
Rene: Epigenetics means not direct genetic effects [Brady: Okay] in a nutshell. But yes, beyond that, for sure, it's trait by trait. Which, to be fair to our regulators, our government regulators, that is how they approach it. They approach it on a trait by trait basis. And so they would say, we are not anti-GM, but we may be anti a particular GM trait, but that does not mean we are not going to accept other GM traits. In fact, our government, and the US government, does not discriminate on process. It says, "We will look at any trait, and assess whether it has a potential environmental or human health risk, regardless of how that trait was put into that crop."
Brady: I noticed that, that if you go to Health Canada's website, and you wanted to look at GM or the GMOs that were allowed in Canada, it is listed under novel foods. [Rene: Yea]. Is that part of novel...
Rene: Novel traits, or plants, or we know the term PNT which is plants with novel traits, which is a distinctly Canadian terminology. That’s right, it's a novel trait, and so regulators are interested in those novel traits. A good example here is about a decade ago, there was an awful lot of interest in plant made pharmaceuticals. Using plants as factories for large molecule pharmaceuticals, using GM technology to be able to transform the plants to produce those. This has been done for a long time, in what might be called white bio-technology, which is industrial bio-technology, you know, using bacteria to produce pharmaceuticals in fully contained facilities. It is a whole other game when you transform a corn plant to produce a large molecule pharmaceutical and then grow it outside, and for sure, these traits can escape. They can move from corn plant to corn plant, and you know, there is some evidence in Mexico that they can move into wild-type teosinte, etcetera. It's one thing if you have the Round-up Ready trait moving, which is pretty much a neutral trait in the environment, it's another thing if that trait is production of a large molecule pharmaceutical, moving into parts of the food stream, or feed stream even, that we don't want it to be part of. That's a whole other ballgame, and we have seen in Canada, for example, less so in the US, although now, more stringently, regulators saying, "No, we are not going to let you produce that large molecule pharmaceutical in canola, because it's a bad idea, because we know there can be some outcrossing, and we can't afford for that trait to escape at all. So why don't you go and do that work, you know, in containment greenhouses in tobacco, where it's never part of the food and feed stream. It's an interesting technology, it has value, yes we want you to do it, we just don't want you to do it as part of the food or feed stream at all." And I think that makes sense, you know. So that is a consideration under trait by trait basis, saying "This trait is potentially dangerous, you know, and so we have to do it a different way."
Brady: (39:15) I want to kind of close, and get your thoughts on how we engage this issue going forward, and we are talking here at the University of Guelph, you are involved in administration, you have been the chair of a department. We are engaging students, but we are also by a mere factor doing this podcast, we also view our outreach as much broader, international. There is a range of issues, there's labelling issues, there's moratoriums, there's risk in communication. What do you see as some of the outreach and education, key issues moving forward, with respect to GM? If you had thoughts that you would pass on [Rene: Yea] to anybody listening to this podcast.
Rene: Well I mean, one would be, how do we approach this as a university? And my answer to that would be, you know, at a university, the university doesn't hold an opinion on this, because the university is, in fact, a collective of experts. And so, we default to expert opinion amongst our faculty, for example, and the faculty can comment on the basis of their expertise. SO that is how the University approaches it. But in terms of engagement, public engagement moving forward, certainly support of the regulatory system, and support in evolution of the regulatory system is very important. We have to continue to have a very high quality scrutiny on these things, because I think we have to acknowledge the novelty of the technology. I am always upset when proponents, you know, for whatever reason, equate GE with plant breeding, and say oh, we've been doing genetic modification for ten thousand years. That is not true, at all. We need to be very clear, that this is, in fact, a very novel technology that we have only recently been using. And it provides possibilities that are way beyond the realm of traditional plant breeding, and so it can, in fact, present risks that are way beyond the realm of traditional plant breeding, and that has to be acknowledged. Having said that, we do have a regulatory system, that I think is efficacious, in ensuring that we aren’t' releasing things that are harmful to the environment or harmful to human health. Beyond that, one might consider the issue of seed ownership, and this has also been a controversial issue for many people, and it is something to consider, and I think farm organizations need to consider it. But I don’t think there’s, I don’t think there’s any value in just sticking your head in the sand, and denying that the seed industry has changing from a commercial business perspective, with this technology, and the possibilities this technology brings in terms of identifying property. And so, if farm organizations or activist farm organizations want to proceed in this regard, they have to proceed in the context of this technology existing, and the business models that exists with this technology. You know, maybe they need to form ownership co-operatives, or you know, they might have to approach it in a slightly different way, but they can’t approach it from the perspective of, "we want to eliminate this technology." I just think there is no traction there. We will progress will GM in the future. There is way too much potential in the technology, who knows what we might need it for, who knows what it might do for us. But, the last things I will say, is that we also need to be clear that we don't put the cart before the horse. Agriculture is not about GM technology. Agriculture is about the things that are really important in terms of providing food and sustenance for the planet, and care for the environment. GM is a technology in that context, that's all it is, and we need to make sure we have a proportionalized view of that technology. And that goes to my concern about not worrying about soils, and worrying about GM when really, proportionally, we should worrying more about soils than we worry about GM. So maybe I'll leave it at that.
Brady: Rene Van Acker, [Music begins] thank you so much for being on FARE Talk today.
Rene: Than you, Brady.
Brady: (43:55) Thanks for joining us at FARE Talk. We hope you will continue to check our website for updates and the latest podcast.
[Music ends] (44:13)
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