You Reap What You Sow

U of M Seminar addresses GMO controversy, pros and cons of genetic engineering in agriculture and glyphosate pesticide poisoning

Thierry Vrain discusses glyphosate poisoning. Photo by Bailey Rankine.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are among the most hotly debated issues in science currently.

On Wednesday, the Clayton H. Riddell Faculty seminar series presented “Genetic Engineering of Seeds: Hope or Hazard of the Future?| The topic was first explored in the afternoon with a debate between Mr. Thierry Vrain, a retired soil biologist and genetic engineer at Agriculture Canada, and Robert Wager, an instructor at Vancouver Island University.

Wager kicked off the debate with a 30 minute opening argument explaining various methods of genetic engineering used in agriculture. He then outlined and addressed some common concerns voiced from the public – including the possible rise of new allergens from combining genes of two different species and the suggested link between Bt Corn (genetically engineered to express proteins with insecticidal properties from Bacillus thuringiensis bacteria) and the rapid decline of honey bee populations known as colony collapse disorder (CDC).

Each concern was quelled with well-documented evidence provided by government and regulatory agencies. His conclusion stressed the need for greater crop yields on the same amount of land to accommodate growing populations and insisted that genetic engineering in combination with sustainable farming practices was our best hope for the future.

Mr. Vrain took a different approach with his opening argument. He focused solely on glyphosate, the active ingredient found in Roundup™ herbicide. He reviewed the history of the chemical beginning with its birth at Stauffer Chemical in the 60’s as a chelator (a binding agent that removes metal ions from the environment). In the 70’s, it was patented by Monsanto as a herbicide and in 1996 the first Roundup Ready™ crop was introduced.

Roundup Ready™

Roundup Ready™ crops are genetically engineered to withstand the effects of glyphosate. With this resistance came an exponential increase in the use of glyphosate-based herbicides in agriculture. Along with glyphosate’s ability to strip the environment of metal ions and kill unwanted plants, it has most recently been patented as an antibiotic, admitting its proficiency in eliminating microorganisms.

It’s important to remember that there are both good and bad strains of bacteria; some make us ill and some are necessary for healthy digestion and immune function. Unfortunately, many antibiotics kill both the good and bad microbes, a characteristic of glyphosate highlighted by Mr. Vrain.

Vrain discussed select peer-reviewed studies on the long-term toxicity of glyphosate paired with a long list of titles and citations. He wrapped up his presentation with a procession of correlation curves linking glyphosate use with the incidence of diabetes, autism and thyroid cancer.

Vrain concluded with the statement, “Cui bono?” Latin for “who benefits?” with his finger clearly pointing at industry to drive his argument home.

Debate rages in question period

Following opening arguments the direction of the debate was turned over to the audience for what was a heated 45 minute question period.

The audience was comprised of faculty and students, media agents, GMO opponents and Monsanto representatives – a combination that proved to be inherently volatile. At this point the room became charged and some audience members decided the rules of debate etiquette no longer applied. The lecture theatre became an arena for people to voice their political views on GMO legislation and lash out against regulatory agencies.

The moderator, U of M’s Shirley Thompson, had difficulty keeping audience members from making long-winded anecdotes and guiding them toward a question format. Although often criticized, Wager fielded most of the questions including thoughts on GMO labelling and claims of increased suicide rates in India since the country’s introduction of GE crops.

Mr. Wager demonstrated a broad knowledge of GE crops and science. Vrain’s argument was compelling against the use of glyphosate; however, he missed the mandate of the debate by not addressing any of the other negative impacts proposed by genetic engineering. In fact, he stated more than once “that [he could] not understand how DNA from one species combined with DNA from another species could possibly be toxic; we’ve been eating DNA forever.”

The evening promised two speakers; Vrain again and Tony Mitra, a former marine engineer and activist spear heading the glyphosate testing initiative in Canada.

Mr. Vrain delivered the same presentation from the debate, but this time to a much smaller audience, comprised of approximately 20 community members. Mr. Mitra gave a short, yet motivational speech appealing to the people of Canada to take a stand against government and demand the availability of affordable laboratory testing for glyphosate in blood, urine and breast milk for anyone that requests it.

Mitra stressed “democracy at the grassroots level” and encouraged the public to take action with their municipal councils. He gave examples citing the GE Free BC movement, which has accomplished a ban on the sale of GE seeds in a list of zones, including the city of Richmond.

Although the title of the seminar was perhaps misleading, the controversy and concerns surrounding the consumption of genetically engineered food cannot be ignored. It is important to recognize the efforts of people like Thierry Vrain and Tony Mitra, who crusade against industry in the best interests of public health and safety.

It is equally important that we take note of individuals like Wager who support the technological advancements in genetic engineering that provide hope for sustaining greater future populations. It’s important to mind the science on this issue and make GMO policy decisions based on the preponderance of evidence, not dogma or intuition.

8 Comments on "You Reap What You Sow"

  1. Mischa Popoff | July 29, 2014 at 9:19 am |

    Congratulations to both Mr. Wager and Mr. Vrain! We need more debates like this. Many, many more!

    Sadly, CropLife Canada was too scared to organize such a debate back when Dr. Patrick Moore and I wrote our full report on the Canadian organic industry for The Frontier Centre. They said they had nothing to gain from such a debate, something which Wager and Vrain disprove in spades!

    Recall the 1860 Oxford Huxley–Wilberforce debate on evolution. Where, pray tell, is that debate taking place today in the field of agriculture? Nowhere, that’s where. Sadly, Wager and Vrain’s debate is the exception that proves the rule.

  2. Well written article in the Manitoban by Bailey Rankine. Bailey writes: “It’s important to mind the science on this issue and make GMO policy decisions based on the preponderance of evidence, not dogma or intuition. You might want to clarify what science Bailey. We don;t want our policy makers to use” tobacco science”.either. I believe that is a conflict of interest when the same companies who stand to profit by this chemical driven GMO technology conduct the studies and infiltrate medical journals. Example is the Seralini study that was retracted when a senior bio tech person was installed as an editor.

    • To clarify, the science I was referring to is that which is consistent, repeatable and utilizes methods modeled for environmentally relevant concentrations and exposures.
      I agree completely that “tobacco science” is not the science we want influencing policy; however, it is unjust to discount a study simply because of the sponsor.
      In response to the example of the Seralini study, there were many concerns regarding the study design and statistical analysis voiced by scientists from various communities including not-for-profits and NGOs. On the other hand, researchers have communicated that they are “ashamed by the extraordinary decision to retract the paper.” Both sides of the issue can be reviewed at

      • The truth | July 30, 2014 at 7:44 am |

        Science used to register a product should be independent of the industry period. If studies provided by the industry were under the same scrutiny as the Seralini study we would be starting all over again. The arrogance of those who push this products (Note: they will not allow labeling or countries to ban them) is a part of the problem….they don’t care about science as a whole they only care about control of a market. To do a study on a patented product is difficult and you can expect an incredible backlash from an industry that bullies anyone and anything in their way. People are getting sick and know it. The industry has repeatedly said that using antibiotic resistant genes is not an issue…what evidence do they have? But now they are looking to use other markers…why is that? Why is it we need markers in the first place? This science should still be in the lab and not on our dinner plates. It is failing around the world and has many issues around it. Tobacco was easier to prove and that took 40 years.

      • The Seralini paper was retracted because (aside from the political machinations) it was not a carcinogenicity study, but all the critics completely avoided to criticize the toxicology results (all the parameters measured weekly) that showed clear damage to liver and kidneys. To me that is the important part.

  3. Good article. I was at the debate and there was lack of etiquette come from the Monsanto Representatives specifically the V.P. herself. They were throwing out the word bullshit during the question period, aimed at persons asking questions, and it was accepted by the moderator Shirley Thompson. Therefore, as a person not associated with faculty, students, media agents, GMO opponents and Monsanto representatives, InI clarified that it is the opinion of Monsanto that their product is the answer to compounding population growth and their trade off for less nutrient food (because GMOs are proved to be less nutrient) is not an option for the future generations.
    We are opposed to roundUp ready pesticide. That is all. And You are welcome, be’koz all we do is care for everyone. One Love.

  4. I liked the article. The writer obviously paid attention not just to the debate between Thierry Vrain and Robert Wager, but also the evening presentation by Dr. Vrain and self.

I am not a scientist, but have a few observations to make on debates on GM crop issues, and not just the one conducted in the University between Dr. Vrain and Mr. Wager.

    The scientific debate on GM crops, especially in north America, in my view, misses or sidesteps some of the issues that are linked to the GM-crop agricultural model based many if not all of the GM crops. These are:

    * Ethics behind allowing patents to a corporation on life forms, when these new forms are not created from scratch, but by tinkering of existing forms either naturally evolved, or done so by human intervention over long periods of hybridization.

    * question of preservation of biological diversity

    * good and bad effects of preserving multiple varieties of public owned seeds and cultivars against monoculture

    * synthetic pesticides/antibiotics and their presence in ever-increasing amount in our environment

    * Food security of a nation, where increasing amount of the food ingredients may be property of a patent holding foreign corporation.

    * Economic independence of a nation or a province with regard to importing, growing, labelling or selling GM-crops, where foreign corporations may have a right to sue our Government for decision

    * Inability of the citizens of Canada, to have their food, or their body fluids such as urine, blood or breast milk of nursing mothers, tested for presence of Glyphosate, the active ingredient in the most used herbicide in the world – RoundUp.

    * Absence of public funding in academia, particularly in bio-technology. As tax payers money is used less and less in scientific research, there may be room to debate if science itself is not losing its objectivity and neutrality, since the industry may only be interested to fund research that promotes its product rather than find problems with it. The issue, in my mind, needs to go back to tax payers agreeing to pay more tax in order to keep science out of undue control of the industry, and let both kinds of research, for and against GM technology, to be given a free hand. Let the chips then fall where they may. This is how things were in the past. This is not how it is today. There may be more scientific censorship today, than any time in the past since Copernicus got into trouble stating the obvious about our planetary system.

    Anyhow, I appreciate the write up.

  5. Just thought I should post this so everyone can see where Dr Thierry Vrain stands on GMOs. There has been some confusion since this article in Manitoban was published.

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