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Letter to the Editor

09.oct.00, Doug Powell, Toronto Star


Despite at least four months of preparation, Stuart Laidlaw manages no better than superficial stereotypes, caricatures and the mindless banter of pro- versus anti- in his description of genetically engineered corn and potatoes being sold at the Birkbank Farms market in Hillsburgh, Ont. (Altered food tested at the market, October 8, 2000).

Rather than simply crying wolf, we created a demonstration project and provided unfettered access to consumers, media and yes, even Greenpeace, to visit the farm...

The breathless melodrama ("Farmer Jeff Wilson ... watches nervously, uncharacteristically quiet as his customer makes her selection") and conspiracy ("the study was deliberately skewed to favour Bt corn, out of fear that consumers would reject the controversial technology") may make for lively copy, but are completely false and do a disservice to both farmers and consumers.

Rather than simply crying wolf, we created a demonstration project and provided unfettered access to consumers, media and yes, even Greenpeace, to visit the farm (over 1,000 people partook of the 3km self-guided walking tour through the crops) and evaluate what they saw for themselves. We have been completely open about all our intentions and results, and welcomed criticisms as a way to improve the project. And when the data is compiled, we will let reviewers at scientific journals judge the merits of out results. In the meantime, weekly text and video updates as well as background material is available at: :

What Laidlaw and others fail to recognize is that the role of specific genetically-engineered crops is being evaluated and debated within the farm community, as would any other agricultural tool, to determine what works under what conditions. We surveyed farmers as a separate audience. And while we ideally would have jumped at the chance to test sales in an urban grocery store, we view the experiment as simply the beginning rather than a final word on anything.

In the end, the effort by Laidlaw fails for the same reason that protests by Greenpeace and others have had little effect in Canada and North America: it focuses on the hypothetical. Rather than citing recent reports from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (genetically-engineered crops are safe but require further oversight), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (genetically engineered Bt field corn is safe for the environment and may even prove beneficial for non-target insects such as the Monarch butterfly; and a Sept. 29, 2000 U.S. federal court ruling against Greenpeace and others that confirmed the policy for assessing safety and labeling of genetically engineered crops, Laidlaw manages to muster -- after a summer of research -- that next month will see "the expected release of studies criticizing GM foods."

Similarly, Greenpeace and others cite the mantra of mandatory labeling, yet when a whole food like sweet corn is segregated and labeled, and consumers vote (as of last week, 7,800 cobs of Bt sweet corn had been sold compared with 5,190 cobs of conventional corn), they cry the study is tainted. We simply asked consumers to decide for themselves, as the picture accompanying the story illustrated. I have been fortunate enough to work with Jeff Wilson, who was willing to put his business, his livelihood, on the line, because he listened to his customers -- not the media, not the activists -- but the individuals who make food purchasing decisions every day and are apparently much better equipped to make decisions about risks and benefits than Laidlaw gives them credit for.


Doug Powell