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Let us not turn our backs to science

By Cam Dahl
web posted March 14, 2011 

We owe our enviable lifestyles to science.  Not just conveniences like iPods and Facebook, but critical things like medical care and adequate food.  Yet, the very foundations of science are under attack by (mostly) well-meaning activists and politicians.

Canada's regulatory systems are based on peer reviewed, repeatable research.  These are the basic tenants of the scientific age.  When Health Canada approves a new drug, that approval is based on extensive data collected in research that begins in a laboratory and ends in human trials.  That path is expensive and many breakthroughs never make it to a pharmacy.  Before new ideas are released, our science-based regulatory system helps ensure they pose minimal risk and are effective.

The same is true for new pesticides and crops that modern farmers use to produce the cheap (and yes, by all historical standards our food is cheap) and safe food that we enjoy every day.

But some believe they know better than science.  Pesticides must be bad, so let's ban them.  Genetic technology sounds scary so let's avoid it.  The David Suzuki Foundation even has a stated goal of making Canada pesticide free.    

Governments have followed these demands.  Municipalities and provincial governments across Canada, notably Quebec and Ontario, have banned the use of pesticides in their communities. All despite the fact that science-based regulators test these products over and over again.

No food innovation has had greater scientific review than the genetic modification (GM) of plants.  Yet despite all the effort by opponents there has yet to be a scientifically demonstrated case of negative health impacts from this technology.

Still, governments around the world are limiting GM.  The European Union has a virtual ban.  Some African countries have refused food aid because the corn or soybeans might have been genetically modified.  Does it really make sense to have people go hungry or starve to death because of an unproven fear?

Canada has seen recurring efforts to restrict GM technology.  A Private Member's bill before the House of Commons demands mandatory labelling, a thinly veiled attempt to create a consumer backlash.  Another Private Member's bill would move our regulatory process away from scientific analysis and into the realm of socio-economics, something that really should be outside the purview of regulators.  

What the activist community is largely ignoring is the fact that this new form of plant breeding is revolutionizing crop production.  Corn, soybean, and canola yields have significantly increased since the introduction of GM.  There are just under 7 billion people in the world today, with an expected increase to 9 billion in the near future.  We need to embrace new technology that will feed 9 billion people instead of turning our backs on it.

GM crops have also had a significant impact on the environment – in a good way.  Herbicide resistant crops have allowed for an expansion of zero tillage farming resulting in farmers burning less fuel and minimizing carbon dioxide release from the soil.  Improved tillage practices have resulted in Canadian crop production becoming a net carbon sink.

Modern farming practices are also limiting soil erosion.  The famous dust bowls of the 1930's, where much of Saskatchewan blew into Ontario, would not happen today.

Why aren't environmental groups embracing the technology that is meeting so many of their professed goals?

Often you will hear the "precautionary principle" raised by those who oppose new technologies.   This principle is often interpreted to mean that no new technology should be allowed unless it can be proven that it will never cause any harm.  This is a ridiculous and dangerous interpretation.

It is ridiculous because if this criterion had been applied to all past innovation we would still be living in caves debating the merits and dangers of fire.  Electricity would not have passed this test.  Would the light bulb have risen over the "precautionary principle" bar?  Penicillin?  Insulin? Immunization?

These advances would never have been made it if they faced the "precautionary" test that some are demanding today.

The erosion of our science based regulatory system is also dangerous.  As a society we need technical advances to deal with rising populations and our increased awareness of the negative environmental impacts of modern life.  We are not going to meet these challenges if we turn away from innovation.

The weakening of science in our regulatory process will limit the food chain's ability to adopt new technology.   The erosion of our science-based regulatory system will also increase the costs and risks of doing basic research and development.  We can't afford that.  We can't afford to turn our backs on science. ESR

Cam Dahl is a Research Associate with the Frontier Centre. He is a former Canadian Grain Commissioner, and has 20 years of experience in agribusiness, lobbying and in work within the Parliament of Canada.

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