Who decided biotech was a technology winner?

The federal government, regardless of political stripe, has a poor record of picking technology winners.  Canadians essentially lost tens of billions when the giant white radioactive elephant Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd (AECL) had most of its assets sold at bargain basement prices to SNC Lavalin.  AECL went for $15 million, with the government pledging another $75 million to help them out.

As an example of the federal government’s ability to pick economic winners, the nuclear experience should have been a lesson learned in humility.  But no, after squandering billions on nuclear, the federal government, first under the Liberals and now under the Conservatives, have decided to shovel tens of millions into biotechnology.   Without any prudence or sense of return on investment, biotechnology has been decreed a priority for subsidies.

It’s ironic, because, otherwise, one would think the philosophical bent of Stephen Harper would eschew intervening in the market place, pushing tax dollars to favoured corporate welfare recipients.  The nuclear industry never justified the investments, and now Harper has continued Chretien’s subsidies to the oil sands and biotechnology.

In the 2013 budget, when we were supposed to be experiencing restraint, tens of millions of federal dollars were committed to biotechnology.  On top of previous spending, a further $165 million was dedicated to Genome Canada while a $225 million went to Canada Foundation for Innovation, its press release highlighting its potential for biotech. The $121 million (over two years) is potentially available for biotech as well.

Yet what has biotech produced?  While the blind assurance that GMOs are good for our economy persists, it is not matched by empirical data.

As an example, one only has to look at Murray Rankin’s motion for GMO labeling.  As have Green efforts before him, Murray Rankin (Victoria MP)’s effort (a motion for mandatory GMO labeling) is strongly supported by the vast majority of Canadians — if not by other parties.  We need to recognize that the overwhelming majority of Canadians, between 80-90%, want labeling to ensure consumer confidence in our food by mandatory GMO labeling.

The demand for mandatory labeling has been growing.   Yet Health Canada has rejected the call for mandatory labeling of food products containing genetically modified ingredients. It has long been Green Party policy and I look forward to supporting Murray Rankin’s motion whenever it comes up this fall.

Meanwhile, the science is beginning to tell us that GMOs are not delivering on their promises of better and more robust agricultural strains and varieties.  A recent article in Nature pointed out that good, old fashioned cross-breeding was succeeding in developing maize crops better able to handle extreme conditions, such as drought.

In a September 16, 2014 article in Nature reported that GMO technology was not as successful in developing drought –resistant strains as selective breeding.  In the article “Cross-bred crops get fit faster: Genetic engineering lags behind conventional breeding in efforts to create drought-resistant maize,” Nature reports on an extensive study of efforts to develop Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa. The project, with a $33 million investment, unintentionally has provided undeniable evidence that GMO crops are no match for cross-breeding in developing resistant maize.  As conventional cross-breeding has shown incredible potential, outstripping any GMO technology:

An analysis published earlier this year reported that by the project’s end in 2016, the extra yields from drought-tolerant maize could help to reduce the number of people living in poverty in the 13 countries by up to 9% (R. La Rovere et al. J. Dev. Areas 48(1),199–225; 2014). In Zimbabwe alone, that effect would reach more than half a million people. (from Nature)

As the climate crisis increases extreme drought (as well as sudden deluge rain events) crops need to be drought resistant.  It turns out that cross-breeding in local environments is having a far greater success than GMO splicing in the laboratory.

This research is a healthy reminder that we need to examine the so-called miracle new technologies.  Before betting the farm on such high-tech, over-promoted new approaches, let us not forget to allow all approaches to compete on a level playing field.  Let’s not waste billions on biotech as we did with nuclear before pulling the plug.  Let’s ask biotech and conventional agriculture to compete against objectives that deliver results for our well-being – not just corporate profits of Monsanto.

Originally printed in the Hill Times.