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Bark a little louder

Editor's note: The following commentary and a related item comes in response to a piece by Paul Beingessner, which appeared on CropChoice on Dec. 23, 2003. A link to Mr. Beingessner's piece is available after these items. -- RS

By Rolf Penner

(Monday, Feb. 9, 2004 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- My article ‘The Divine Right of Stagnation’, which centered on the issue of genetically modified crops and property rights, ruffled the feathers of that tireless defender of the status quo, Paul Beingessner. Who responded shortly after with a characteristically, venomous op-ed titled ‘Saying It, Does Not Make It So’. In which he challenges my honesty, my sources and science itself. Well Paul, challenge accepted.

First off I am not a hog farmer, this is a half-truth, which is a running strategy in most Beingessner arguments. For the record I am a hog and Grain farmer, running 1700 acres of various crops. Why someone who is interested in having an honest debate would leave this out is a question that answers itself.

Mr. Beingessner jumps into the food safety issue with the unbelievable claim that "Science most certainly has not proven there is no risk to eating GM crops since science has done virtually no direct testing of that hypothesis." We’re supposed to believe that after decades of various groups carrying on about allergic/toxic reactions to these crops that hardly anyone has bothered testing them for just that. I guess it’s true what they say; denial is not just a river in Egypt.

I counted 85 studies on this referenced on the University of Guelph’s web site. There is also an extensive list kept at The Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scotland’s national academy of science, for anyone who cares to look. Also at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, National academies of Sciences in America, UK, Brazil, China, India, Mexico, the Third World Academy of Science, the U.S. Institute of Food Technologists, Swiss Association for Research and Nutrition, American Society of Toxicology and affiliates of the American Council on Science and Health. All of which conclude that this food is safe.

And let’s be clear about where the alleged danger is coming from, ‘DNA’. The average person consumes between 0.1 to 1 gram of DNA each day. In transgenic corn the amount of transgenes represents 0.0001% of the total DNA present. I’m not going to extrapolate how much transgenic DNA the average person eats, but to say that it is a needle in a haystack would be an overstatement.

Then Beingessner makes the assertion, "It is a bold leap of logic, based on the claim that science, and hence all scientists, are united in the position that GM foods are harmless. Nothing could be further from the truth." Which is a common tactic of anti-technology activists, the demand of consensus.

Fortunately science does not work that way, it works on strict adherence to the scientific method. Any one person is capable of discovering the truth about a subject if they follow the scientific method, through double blind studies, good lab practices, etc and others can replicate their results. To demand absolute consensus is not necessary, is counterproductive and results in the politicicization of it. You quickly wind up with a majority who vote that 2+2=5 and other such nonsense.

However if one were looking for consensus, I would again direct them to the above list, highlighting in particular the ‘Society of Toxicology’, which represents over 5000 toxicologists. And invite them to look up their well-referenced position paper, ‘The safety of genetically modified crops produced through biotechnology’.

It among other things details Beingessners loathed ‘substantial equivalence’ concept. Which is applicable only after extensive comparative studies of the chemical composition, nutritional quality, and levels of potentially toxic components in both the engineered and conventional crops are conducted. And even then is only a starting point not an ending one.

Which brings us to a statement that show’s a complete ignorance of the regulatory structure, "Genetically engineered foods classified as substantially equivalent are spared from extensive safety testing on the assumption that they are no more dangerous than the corresponding non-GM food," writes Beingessner. This is not even a half-truth, the health Canada website clearly shows that all GM foods undergo, health risk assessments for chemical, physical, microbiological contaminants, toxicants and allergens. Done by scientific evaluators with expertise in molecular biology, toxicology, chemistry, nutritional sciences and microbiology. Which is the case with regulatory bodies worldwide. The truth is that no other agricultural process technology, or the foods derived from it, has ever been subjected to this level of analysis or regulation before.

Then there is the ‘tryptophan’ red herring trotted out by Mr. Beingessner. The deaths were traced to impurities in the manufacturing process of both GM and non-GM versions. And lobbying by the (surprise) health food industry has resulted in legislation tying regulators hands when it comes to evaluating all ‘dietary supplements’ like; vitamins, minerals, herbal products, and amino acids (trptophan).

I would also like to note the level of expert Mr. Beingessner deems’ worthy. Such as Vandana Shiva who has a PhD in physics (?). During an October of 2000 crop tour she smugly remarked that, "the plants look unhappy, the rice plants at home look very happy". The tour guide had to inform her that, "we harvested the rice in August. Those are weeds."

I agree that ‘saying it, does not make it so’, facts are fundamentally important. The problem with those engaged in the anti-GM jihad is that they have little more than science fiction and emotion to go on. When it comes to actual evidence they are all bark and no bite.


This is the piece that prompted the commentary by Mr. Beingessner.

The Divine Right of Stagnation -Part 1-
By Rolf Penner

In the debate over GMO’s (genetically modified organisms) one of the recurring issues is around ‘non- interference rights’ and their derivative ‘property rights’. This shouldn’t be a surprise since defining the application of these rights has accompanied every major scientific discovery in modern history. Which has led to things like; oil rights, vertical space rights, and copyrights.

Non-interference rights protect you and your freedom. As the name implies, they are rights that declare that, others should not interfere with you in exercising certain powers or undertaking certain activities. They constrain others from acting in ways that would harm you or prevent you from exercising a personal liberty. These are sometimes called negative rights. They don’t require you to do anything on my behalf or on behalf of society, but they require you to refrain from certain sorts of actions.

The actions normally referenced are things like murder, theft, and fraud. Application of these rights could include, free speech, the right not wear a seat belt or to paint your house whatever god-awful color you choose.

In the case of GMO’s the argument is that farmers who choose not to grow these new crops should be able to go on living their lives as if they never existed. Some have called this defense the ‘Divine-Right of Stagnation’.

Science has shown that there is a small amount of outcrossing that can occur from GM (genetically modified) plants into neighboring fields through the natural movement of pollen. This means that a neighboring field with the same crop may wind up with the odd plant containing a GM gene.

One of the concerns with this is a potential loss of revenue. The presence of GM seeds we are told could lead to a discount in prices and a loss of potential markets when it comes to customers who supposedly want 100% GM free products. This is particularly true, although is not limited to, organic production.

At first glance this looks like a clear-cut case for the application of non-interference rights, but when we look at the actual damage being done the picture gets fuzzier. The plants’ themselves are not harmed in any way, they look the same, smell the same; their nutrient content is either the same or in some cases improved. And science has shown that there is no risk in consuming these plants or the seeds that come from them.

While someone touching you on the shoulder, turning around in your driveway or walking across your lawn would technically be a violation of your non-interference or property rights. These examples are missing a key component, without which they cannot be taken seriously, namely actual physical damage. If someone punched you in the nose, drove over your mailbox, or spray-painted your house that would be a different story. In those instances a claim would be valid. Why should there then be a different standard when it comes to GMO’s in the neighborhood?

Even with the absence of physical harm there is still the question of economic impact when it comes to customers and markets. This is very real but where does it actually come from? And who is ultimately responsible?

Most fingers are pointing at the companies who have developed and patented these GM crops and to a lesser extent the farmers who use them. A group called the ‘Saskatchewan Organic Directorate’ has even gone a step further and is suing Monsanto and Aventis (now owned by Bayer). Claiming that they are responsible for producers’ inability to grow organic canola in Canada. Groups helping to fund the suit include Greenpeace, The council of Canadians, Bio-Suisse (Switzerland) as well as others.

University of Manitoba plant scientist Rene Van Acker believes that that there needs to be legislation enforcing mandatory compensation for what he call’s, "Non-target effects" from these crops. He is presenting his arguments at the European conference on the Co-existence of GM and non-GM Crops in November.

While this is going on, an increasing number of people are however arguing that it is the organic community itself, along with radical environmentalists who are culpable.

Dr Philip Campbell describes it in the July issue of the British journal -Nature-," The problem is an artificial one, based in essence on an ultimately arbitrary and self-defeating definition of 'contamination' by the organic movement."

Alex Avery a plant physiologist and Director of Research at the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues agrees, adding that, "they have for decade’s now, not only rejected science and scientific analysis, when it comes to food production and food safety. But have actively campaigned against it, undermining the scientific process and people’s confidence in it, wherever possible. Along the way building themselves a niche market based on people’s fears and false health claims. To now use scientific evidence (outcrossing) to protect a market based on rejecting it is a contradiction. You can’t choose to ignore scientific evidence when it doesn’t suit your purpose."

A recent example of this scientific double standard Avery point’s out is the recall of organic corn meals in the UK, "which contained levels of the cancer causing fungus ‘fumonisin’ that were on average 20 times higher than the Europe safety limit." Yet the environmentalists claimed that people should not be concerned because the toxins are -natural-.

The Divine Right of Stagnation - Part 2-

Part1defined non-interference rights, and detailed how opponents are applying them with regards to genetically modified (GM) crops. It concluded that while a number of people are holding the companies that have developed GM crops responsible for economic damages. A growing number believe that it is actually the organic community along with radical environmentalists who are culpable.

Alex Avery a plant physiologist and Director of Research at the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues argues, " the organic community has never before guaranteed a product, they have always’ guaranteed a process. There is no reason to believe that they shouldn’t continue to do so in a GM environment. Realistic, yet strict levels can easily be accommodated in the organic system, identical to what is in place with regards to pesticides. However that would mean that they were interested in being reasonable, and to date they have been about as reasonable as the terrorist group –Hamas-."

University of Oklahoma law professor Drew Kershen and author of the research article, ‘Legal Liability Issues in Agricultural Biotechnology’ not only agrees with Avery when it comes to organics guaranteeing process, but adds that, " It is not widely known, but they are already doing this with regards to GMO’s. Farmers in fact, don’t lose their organic certification solely because transgenic material is found on their farms or in their crops. They lose certification only if they intentionally use GM material or if they fail to take reasonable measures to prevent GMO’s on their farms or in their crops. This is the same in Canada where certification is voluntary as it is in the U.S. and in Europe where it is not", Kershen says.

This common misconception according to Kershen is based on a half-truth. Growers will sometimes sign contracts guaranteeing that their crops are 100% GMO free, when it turns out that they are not, by whatever miniscule amount, the company they are dealing with can then discount the product. But they can also then turn around and still sell it as organic. Either through blending it or even as is, if the levels are below the requirement standards. Producers, who’ve experienced this, sometimes get the impression that they are no longer certified and cannot sell their product as organic. Which is not the case, they just signed a bad contract.

Another group that is using the non-interference defense on strictly economic grounds is the CWB (Canadian Wheat Board). The boards primary concern is loss of market share from uncertain consumers. While understanding the concern, Professor Kershen thinks that setting a zero tolerance on GMO’s would establish a dangerous precedent for the board, " what happens when their customers then demand zero dockage or worse yet zero percent fecal contamination are they then going to ban weeds and mice?" Another question might be why would the wheat board now need purity standards that are higher than that of conventional seed growers or even the organic industry? Who tolerate small levels of GM material as long as their process is followed?

The other thing about the board cynics point out, is that its whole existence is dependant upon legislation that denies western Canadian farmers these very same non-interference property rights when it comes to selling their own wheat. This again is a blatant contradiction, how can a group invoke property rights whenever it suits them and deny them when it does not?

Another contention is the extra cost of dealing with volunteer grains that contain a chemically resistant gene, in fields that never grew them. This is a good point that falls under the nuisance category. There are however some problems with this argument as well. Firstly the principles and laws surrounding these kinds of issues are reciprocal; they apply to both parties equally. If one party insists that pollen and weed flow, must stop, then it must stop in both directions, which is of course impossible. Further complicating the matter is that courts expect neighbors to have reasonable tolerances towards one another. It is quite doubtful that ‘Zero’ tolerance would be considered reasonable. A transgenic crop would have to be shown to have caused weediness, pollen flow, or volunteer plants to a greater degree than non-transgenic ones before any redress could be considered. Which has yet to be the case. And since both standard and organic seed certifying bodies put the onus on individual producers not their neighbors to take appropriate steps to comply with required production standards. It would first have to be established that all appropriate measures were taken, which includes things like isolation distances, buffer rows, and roguing.

At this point one could ask, is this dispute really over the right to plant whatever crop one chooses and raise it in the manner one sees fit, on ones own property? On close inspection it appears not. It looks like in this case, the right of non-interference is intentionally being manipulated to limit competition. For the purpose of artificially increasing economic compensation or market share to certain groups, at the expense of those who compete through improvements in productivity, performance and measurable product quality. Which is ultimately at the expense of not only consumers but also the ones who can least afford it.


To see Paul Beingessner's ‘Saying it does not make it so,’ go to http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=2296