GMO Myths & Truths

by Michael Antoniou, Claire Robinson and John Fagan

GMO Myths and Truths book coverThere is a movement growing.

The National Farmer Union represents independent food producers who do not want multi-national chemical agribusinesses bullying them into buying genetically patented seeds, pesticides and herbicide. NFU’s recent Ottawa conference focused on “Growing the Resistance” to the corporate takeover of Canada’s small and medium size family-run farms by the soulless corporations that only care about making money and gaining power. Their corporate marketing disguises their agenda with claims of saving the starving children of the world. The NFU works for development of economic and social policies that will maintain the family farm as the primary food-producing unit in Canada. NFU protects farmers like Percy Schmeiser of Bruno, Saskatchewan who got sued by Monsanto in 2000.

Two top ex-government scientists began a truth telling GMO tour speaking to packed houses. The second leg of their tour is eastern BC and Alberta this December (see map below; let family and friends know to attend). Common Ground broke the silence on GMO in 2000 by hosting NFB’s film The Genetic Takeover followed by a lively debate. We need to push back against this genetic takeover. The time to act is now: grow the awareness, grow the message, and grow the movement to take back control of our food. As the National Farmers Union poster says, it’s “Our communities. Our country. Our world. Our economy.” And it’s our food.

– Common Ground.

About the authors

Michael Antoniou, PhD, is a reader in molecular genetics and head of the Gene Expression and Therapy Group at King’s College London School of Medicine in London, UK. He has 28 years’ experience in the use of genetic engineering technology investigating gene organization and control, with over 40 peer reviewed publications of original work and holds inventor status on a number of gene expression biotechnology patents. Dr. Antoniou has a large network of collaborators in industry and academia who are making use of his discoveries in gene control mechanisms for the production of research, diagnostic and therapeutic products and safe and efficacious human somatic gene therapy for inherited and acquired genetic disorders.

Claire Robinson, MPhil, is research director at Earth Open Source. She has a background in investigative reporting and the communication of topics relating to public health, science and policy and the environment. She is an editor at GMWatch (www.gmwatch.org), a public information service on issues relating to genetic modification, and was formerly managing editor at SpinProfiles (now Powerbase.org).

John Fagan, PhD, is a leading authority on sustainability in the food system, biosafety and GMO testing. He is founder and chief scientific officer of one of the world’s first GMO testing and certification companies, through which he has pioneered the development of innovative tools to verify and advance food purity, safety and sustainability. He co-founded Earth Open Source, which uses open source collaboration to advance sustainable food production. Earlier, he conducted cancer research at the US National Institutes of Health. He holds a PhD in biochemistry and molecular and cell biology from Cornell University.

Earth Open Source

Earth Open Source is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to assuring the sustainability, security and safety of the global food system. It supports agroecological, farmer-based systems that conserve soil, water, and energy and that produce healthy and nutritious food free from unnecessary toxins. It challenges the use of pesticides, artificial fertilizer and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on the grounds of the scientifically proven hazards that they pose to health and the environment and because of the negative social and economic impacts of these technologies. Earth Open Source holds that our crop seeds and food system are common goods that belong in the hands of farmers and citizens, not of the GMO and chemical industry. Earth Open Source has established three lines of action, each of which fulfils a specific aspect of its mission: 1) Science and policy platform 2) Scientific research 3) Sustainable rural development.

Science and policy

Because the quality of our food supply is intimately connected with political and regulatory decisions, for example, on pesticides and GMOs, Earth Open Source functions as a science and policy platform to provide input to decision makers on issues relating to the safety, security and sustainability of our food system.

Earth Open Source has published and co-published several reports that have had impact internationally:

  • Roundup and birth defects: Is the public being kept in the dark?
  • GM Soy: Sustainable? Responsible?
  • Conflicts on the menu: A decade of industry influence at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)
  • Europe’s pesticide and food safety regulators – Who do they work for?

Scientific research and sustainable rural development

Earth Open Source has laboratory and field research projects under way on several continents. Farmer-led agricultural development projects are ongoing in Asia. Details will be released as these projects come to fruition.

Executive summary

Genetically modified (GM) crops are promoted on the basis of a range of far-reaching claims from the GM crop industry and its supporters. They say that GM crops:

  • Are an extension of natural breeding and do not pose different risks from naturally bred crops.
  • Are safe to eat and can be more nutritious than naturally bred crops.
  • Are strictly regulated for safety.
  • Increase crop yields.
  • Reduce pesticide use.
  • Benefit farmers and make their lives easier.
  • Bring economic benefits.
  • Benefit the environment.
  • Can help solve problems caused by climate change.
  • Reduce energy use.
  • Will help feed the world.

However, a large and growing body of scientific and other authoritative evidence shows that these claims are not true. On the contrary, evidence presented in this report indicates that GM crops:

  • Are laboratory-made, using technology that is totally different from natural breeding methods and pose different risks from non-GM crops.
  • Can be toxic, allergenic or less nutritious than their natural counterparts.
  • Are not adequately regulated to ensure safety.
  • Do not increase yield potential.
  • Do not reduce pesticide use but increase it.
  • Create serious problems for farmers, including herbicide-tolerant “superweeds,” compromised soil quality and increased disease susceptibility in crops.
  • Have mixed economic effects.
  • Harm soil quality, disrupt ecosystems, and reduce biodiversity.
  • Do not offer effective solutions to climate change.
  • Are as energy-hungry as any other chemically-farmed crops.
  • Cannot solve the problem of world hunger but distract from its real causes – poverty, lack of access to food and, increasingly, lack of access to land to grow it on.

Based on the evidence presented in this report, there is no need to take risks with GM crops when effective, readily available and sustainable solutions to the problems that GM technology is claimed to address already exist. Conventional plant breeding, in some cases helped by safe modern technologies like gene mapping and marker assisted selection, continues to outperform GM in producing high-yield, drought-tolerant and pest-and disease-resistant crops that can meet our present and future food needs.

Myth of the Month #1

The genetic engineering technique

Myth: Genetic engineering is just an extension of natural breeding.

Truth: Genetic engineering is different from natural breeding and poses special risks.

GM proponents claim that genetic engineering is just an extension of natural plant breeding. They say that GM crops are no different from naturally bred crops, apart from the inserted foreign GM gene (transgene) and its protein product. But this is misleading. GM is completely different from natural breeding and poses different risks. Natural breeding can only take place between closely related forms of life (e.g. cats with cats, not cats with dogs; wheat with wheat, not wheat with tomatoes or fish). In this way, the genes that carry information for all parts of the organism are passed down the generations in an orderly way.

In contrast, GM is a laboratory-based technique that is completely different from natural breeding. The main stages of the genetic modification process are as follows:

1. In a process known as tissue culture or cell culture, tissue from the plant that is to be genetically modified is placed in culture.

2. Millions of the tissue cultured plant cells are subjected to the GM gene insertion process. This results in the GM gene(s) being inserted into the DNA of a few of the plant cells in tissue culture. The inserted DNA is intended to re-programme the cells’ genetic blueprint, conferring completely new properties on the cell. This process is carried out either by using a device known as a gene gun, which shoots the GM gene into the plant cells, or by linking the GM gene to a special piece of DNA present in the soil bacterium, Agrobacterium tumefaciens. When the A. tumefaciens infects a plant, the GM gene is carried into the cells and can insert into the plant cell’s DNA.

3. At this point in the process, the genetic engineers have a tissue culture consisting of hundreds of thousands to millions of plant cells. Some have picked up the GM gene(s), while others have not. The next step is to treat the culture with chemicals to eliminate all except those cells that have successfully incorporated the GM gene into their own DNA.

4. Finally, the few cells that survive the chemical treatment are treated with plant hormones. The hormones stimulate these genetically modified plant cells to proliferate and differentiate into small GM plants that can be transferred to soil and grown on.

5. Once the GM plants are growing, the genetic engineer examines them and eliminates any that do not seem to be growing well. He/she then does tests on the remaining plants to identify one or more that express the GM genes at high levels. These are selected as candidates for commercialization.

6. The resulting population of GM plants all carry and express the GM genes of interest. But they have not been assessed for health and environmental safety or nutritional value…

The fact that the GM transformation process is artificial does not automatically make it undesirable or dangerous. It is the consequences of the procedure that give cause for concern.

Section at a glance

Genetic engineering is completely different from natural breeding and entails different risks. The genetic engineering and associated tissue culture processes are imprecise and highly mutagenic, leading to unpredictable changes in the DNA, proteins and biochemical composition of the resulting GM crop that can lead to unexpected toxic or allergenic effects and nutritional disturbances.

Foods produced by cisgenic or intragenic methods are as hazardous as any other GM crop. It is misleading to compare GM with radiation-induced mutation breeding and to conclude that, as crops bred by the latter method are not tested for safety or regulated, neither should GM crops be tested or regulated. Radiation-induced mutation breeding is potentially even more mutagenic than GM and at least as destructive to gene expression, and crops produced by this method should be regulated at least as strictly as GM crops.

It is unnecessary to take risks with GM when conventional breeding – assisted by safe modern gene mapping technologies – is capable of meeting our crop breeding needs.

Muddying the waters with imprecise terms

GM proponents often use the terminology relating to genetic modification incorrectly to blur the line between genetic modification and conventional breeding.

For example, the claim that conventional plant breeders have been “genetically modifying” crops for centuries by selective breeding and that GM crops are no different is incorrect. The term “genetic modification” is recognized in common usage and in national and international laws to refer to the use of recombinant DNA techniques to transfer genetic material between organisms in a way that would not take place naturally, bringing about alterations in genetic makeup and properties.

The term “genetic modification” is sometimes wrongly used to describe marker-assisted selection (MAS). MAS is a largely uncontroversial branch of biotechnology that can speed up conventional breeding by identifying genes linked to important traits. MAS does not involve the risks and uncertainties of genetic modification and is supported by organic and sustainable agriculture groups worldwide.

Similarly, the term “genetic modification” is sometimes wrongly used to describe tissue culture, a method that is used to select desirable traits or to reproduce whole plants from plant cells in the laboratory. In fact, while genetic modification of plants as carried out today is dependent on the use of tissue culture, tissue culture is not dependent on GM. Tissue culture can be used for many purposes, independent of GM.

Using the term “biotechnology” to mean genetic modification is inaccurate. Biotechnology is an umbrella term that includes a variety of processes in which biological functions are harnessed for various purposes. For instance, fermentation, as used in wine making and baking, marker assisted selection (MAS) and tissue culture, as well as genetic modification, are all biotechnologies. Agriculture itself is a biotechnology, as are commonly used agricultural methods such as the production of compost and silage.

GM proponents’ misleading use of language may be due to unfamiliarity with the field – or may represent deliberate attempts to blur the lines between controversial and uncontroversial technologies in order to win public acceptance of GM.

Excerpted from GMO Myths and Truths, an evidence-based examination of the claims made for the safety and efficacy of genetically modified crops. Version 1.3b by Michael Antoniou, Claire Robinson and John Fagan © Earth Open Source, www.earthopensource.org Earth Open Source functions as a science and policy platform to provide input to decision-makers on issues relating to the safety, security and sustainability of our food system.

Pharma’s feedbag

Who’s really paying for that ‘free lunch’ for doctors?

DRUG BUST by Alan Cassels

• The people’s briefing note on prescription drugs
Portrait of columnist Alan Cassels

As they say, “There’s no free lunch.” Unless you’re a doctor or work in a doctor’s office, that is.

Welcome to the world of pharmaceutical marketing, which smells a lot like curry dishes and baked delicacies. Pharma marketing involves a lot of food that costs a lot of money, but guess what? (And this is the most interesting part of the story). Nobody pays any taxes on that money.

Not paying taxes? Most doctors I know are outstanding members of the community who care about people and want to do what’s right. But many of them are enjoying a free lunch, almost everyday, paid for by taxpayers.

It’s pretty clear, based on the statistics of marketing and promotions I’ve seen, that doctors get a lot of gifts from the pharmaceutical industry. At least two-thirds of the money spent marketing pharmaceuticals (about $3 billion per year in Canada) goes towards the salaries of pharmaceutical sales people, the gas for their cars and the free drug samples and food they deliver to our doctors.

If you get a gift and don’t pay taxes on it, you might call that a perk, a nice little thing that comes with the territory. And you might never report it to Revenue Canada, thinking it’s small and you deserve it. But if you get gifts in a large, expensive, systematic way and don’t pay taxes on them, you would probably think Revenue Canada would find it worth looking into. And in this business, where the drug industry gives our doctors gifts, writes them off as a ‘business expense’ and won’t pay taxes on them, the taxpayer is defrauded twice.

Put it this way; you do a job for me and I pay you with a $100 bag of candy, then (depending on your personal tax rate) you probably owe the government $30, $40 or even $50. After all, being paid in merchandise is still being paid. And whenever money changes hands, we all understand there is a cut we have to give to the government. It’s the way the world works and those taxes pay for the services we all enjoy.

So it is perplexing to me that the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency hasn’t seemed to pay any attention to the marketing tactics of the world’s multinational pharmaceutical industry. There is probably no larger, more obvious, exchange of gifts anywhere in society yet those gifts are never monetized or taxed.

Let’s bring this down to Earth. Ever visited your doctor’s office near lunchtime and smelled Thai curry or fresh pizza wafting out from the staff room? By my calculation, probably up to a third of our doctors – and their staff – are eating for ‘free’ almost every day of the week. (If anyone out there has better data on this, please send it to me.) Some doctors, medical office assistants and nurses in a busy physician’s office are likely not paying for their own lunch more than a day or two per week.

Don’t believe me? Ask the owners of catering businesses in big cities like Victoria, Vancouver, Richmond and Kelowna how much of their business consists of making delicious lunches for drug companies to buy and serve to doctors. And there will be your answer.

If you feel poorer because as a taxpayer you have paid for all these Thai curries, deli sandwiches and elegant salads, you might also feel irritated about Canadians paying the second-highest prices in the world for their drugs. Shelling out even more of your money for a delicious, ‘free’ lunch for your doctor and his office staff (while it’s a write-off for the company who bought it) feels somewhat unsavoury. And all that money spent on food just gets added to the cost of the drugs. How much is this costing us?

Let’s do some back-of-the-envelope calculations. There are about 70,000 doctors in Canada. Let’s say only half of them dine occasionally on free lunches provided by smiling drug salespeople. For that half, on average, two to three meals a week are dropped off. Some offices I have visited have ‘free’ lunches every day of the week; others might have only one or two on average so let’s say our doctors and their staff are eating 2.5 lunches per week for ‘free.’ And let’s say the average lunch per person costs $15 (including drinks), though I have seen meals so lip smacking they are probably worth twice that. And let’s say the ‘average’ doctor has one ‘staff’ (though larger clinics would likely have more). And let’s say they eat like this for 48 weeks per year because they take a month off for holidays and presumably buy their own food while on holidays. What is the cost of the ‘free’ lunches for Canadian doctors each year?

Seventy thousand (35,000 doctors and 35,000 staff) X 2.5 meals per week X $15 per meal X 48 = $126,000,000. So just to recap, the ‘free’ meals provided to our doctors in Canada by Pfizer, Glaxo, Eli Lilly and other pharmaceutical companies are worth $126 million per year. Could be more, could be less, but let’s work with that number for now. But only about half the doctors are eating for free so if you calculate that amount per doctor who chows down on pharma’s free food, it works out to about $3,600 per year per doctor who dines on pharma’s dime, by my envelope calculations.

Again, as far as I can tell, those doctors pay no tax on that $3,600 gift every year. Nothing. Nada. Not a red cent. It doesn’t appear the Canadian government considers provisions of free food worth $126 million per year to be taxable.

What if they made a small change to the law and asked doctors to pay taxes on all that free food they and their staff consume every week? Typically, doctors are in high tax brackets so let’s say 50% of the value of the meal should be taxable. That works out to about $63 million per year in government revenues. Not bad, eh?

Or what if we changed the law and told the companies they can’t write off $126 million per year in free food to doctors? After all, if the doctors aren’t paying tax on it, someone has to and it might as well be the companies supplying it.

Either way, it’s time we say the days of free lunches are over. Most doctors can pay for food for themselves and their staff and would likely do so if they knew they would be taxed on the ‘freebies’ given to them by pharmaceutical companies.

Of course, that’s just for food. Now, do we want to get into the real big-ticket items? The value of the free drug samples dropped off every week is likely hundreds of millions per year. Nobody pays any tax on that and the pharmaceutical industry can write it off (at full retail value) even if a $10 pill costs them two cents to make.

Good gig, huh?

Let’s be clear. The Canadian government wants to make as much money out of oil sands, resource extraction and pipelines as it can. The government claims these revenues are important to pay for the roads, bridges, schools and hospitals we all need to keep our citizens productive and happy.

Let me suggest another kind of mining for resources.

I think there is a mother lode of potential profit in closing tax loopholes so our doctors and the drug companies aren’t allowed to avoid paying millions every year in unpaid taxes. Is there not a huge amount of potential in redistributing the money big pharma is sloshing around in our doctors’ offices to pay for many schools, roads and bridges?

That is, if the government is bold enough to go after it.

Alan Cassels is a pharmaceutical policy researcher and has never, to his knowledge, eaten a pharma-funded sandwich.www.alancassels.com

A few words on Human Rights

by Bruce Mason

Photos: Juan Pablo Gutíerrez/Amnesty International Canada

I am a victim of paramilitaries and the guerrilla
“I am a victim of paramilitaries and the guerrilla.” Message from a Wayúu woman.

• “A picture’s worth a thousand words,” Confucius observed. But sometimes there’s more than meets the eye and big pictures require text, as well.

For example: “This is What We Want to Tell You,” the powerful Amnesty International Canada/National Indigenous Organization of Colombia photo exhibition, available to communities, coast, to coast. It’s a case where words are urgent, including your own, to stop Canada’s ongoing complicity in “social cleansing,” exacerbated by a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and subsequent deals..

“State security forces are firing on people, the number of injured keeps growing. We’re in shock. It’s a state of emergency,” reported exhibit photographer Juan Pablo Gutíerrez in a recent phone call to Amnesty’s Toronto office..

Describing the call as “grim, the tension palpable,” Kathy Price – Amnesty Columbia campaigner – says: “Only days earlier, he miraculously escaped a shooting on the vehicle in which he was traveling.

“Indigenous people across the country took to the streets publicly protesting repeated failures by the Colombian government to uphold promises,” Price explains. “Paramilitaries wrote to demonstrators to return to their communities within 24 hours or face “social cleansing,” threats that have to be taken incredibly seriously, given their bloody record.”

In 2009, Colombia’s Constitutional Court determined 34 Indigenous nations in imminent danger of “extermination, an emergency which is as serious as it is invisible.” It ordered government to act, but protection hasn’t been implemented.

To make the injustices visible, Gutíerrez took photos. People in 12 images remain anonymous but “speak” directly to Canadians, “face to face,” sharing heartfelt, hand-written messages. In a decade, more than 90,000 Indigenous people have been driven from lands vital to their identity and livelihoods. Massacres, assassinations and other atrocities have decimated communities and are linked to resource development megaprojects.

A man in one Gutíerrez photograph wrote: “People of Canada, the Zenu people need your support.” Pressure from Canadians will make a significant difference, particularly given the “special” relationship between the two governments.

The Zenú have suffered in defending their territory and rights. In 2009, the Constitutional Court gave the government six months to devise and implement a plan to protect Zenú, but they remain at risk of extermination.

o more exploitation of natural resources. Yes to Life
“No more exploitation of natural resources. Yes to Life” Message from a Wayúu woman.

The FTA was implemented in 2011. Two-way trade totaled more than $1.4 billion in 2010, when Canadian investment in Colombia was $824 million, primarily in oil, gas and mining. This is growing exponentially as the Harper government vigorously promotes further resource extraction, without human rights guarantees.

Canadian companies secure government permits to operate, despite complaints by Indigenous peoples that their right to be involved in decision-making is routinely denied. Projects coincide with contamination and health problems, as well as militarization and violence, forcing entire communities to flee.

In 2012, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights heard testimony about impacts of large-scale mining, including environmental contamination, the loss of plants and food crops, and increased cancer rates.

Independent UN expert on indigenous people’s rights, James Anaya, said natural resource extraction and other major development projects in, or near, Indigenous territory constitute one of the most significant sources human rights abuses, calling for a visit by the UN’s Special Adviser on Prevention of Genocide.

Last year, Canada and Colombia signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Defence Cooperation. Minister Peter MacKay reported: “current areas of collaboration include military exercises, military training, and defence policy talks,” and other opportunities include “knowledge sharing on counter-improvised explosive devices.”

Asserting the FTA gave Canada more influence to press for human rights, the Harper government also signed agreements covering labour and environmental cooperation. Pressure must be brought to honour these, as well as trade deals.

To host the exhibit in your community, visit the Amnesty Canada website.

You will also be invited to join Writeathon, the world’s largest letter-writing event, held on International Human Rights Day, December 10th. In more than 80 countries, governments will be pressed to respond to human rights abuses, including forced evictions and effects of extractive resource activity.

Last year, nearly two million messages were sent. If you’re concerned about Canada’s rapidly deteriorating reputation and record, visit www.amnesty.ca.

GMO Bites

GM apple update

The US government has taken one more step towards approving the GM “non-browning” apple. On November 8, the U.S. Department of Agriculture invited the US public to comment on a draft environmental assessment of the GM apple. CBAN and the Society for a GE Free BC issued a press release that pointed out the GM apple is also being reviewed by the Canadian government, but the process in Canada will not involve any similar public consultations and the Canadian government will not release any environmental assessments or other documents before it makes its final decision. Friends of the Earth U.S. (www.foe.org) also released statements from McDonalds and Gerber saying the companies do not have plans to use the GM apple.

The BC Fruit Growers’ Association (BCFGA) has asked federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose and Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz to immediately stop the federal regulatory process needed for approval of the non-browning GM apple. “Our concern is the negative publicity for apples in general caused by the controversy over this GM apple,” said Jeet Dukhia, BCFGA president. “There is potential market damage caused to apple markets if this GM apple is approved. Indeed, it seems the damage is occurring even while the apple is in the regulatory process and a decision on its approval is still pending. The public thinks of apples as a pure, natural, healthy and nutritional fruit. GM apples are a risk to our market image.”

Complaint in Panama raises concerns about GM fish research in Canada

On November 21, The Environmental Advocacy Center of Panama (Centro de Incidencia Ambiental de Panama or CIAM) submitted a complaint to the National Environmental Authority in Panama alleging the US company AquaBounty is in breach of environmental regulations in its research and development of genetically modified (GM) Atlantic salmon. AquaBounty has a research facility in Prince Edward Island where it produces GM salmon eggs. The eggs are shipped to its Panama location for further research and development.

Unlabelled GMO sweet corn

Tests discover unlabelled GM sweet corn in Canadian stores and farmers’ markets

Tests have found unlabelled genetically modified (GM) sweet corn in grocery stores, roadside stands and farmers’ markets across Canada, says the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN).

“Our testing clearly shows GM sweet corn is present in Canada,” said Lucy Sharratt of CBAN. “The high number of positive results in our small sample size alerts consumers to the fact they could be unknowingly buying GM sweet corn. At the very least, GM sweet corn should be clearly labelled so consumers can make a choice.”

The purpose of CBAN’s test was to get an indication of the presence of genetically modified (also called genetically engineered) fresh sweet corn in Canada. “Our sample size was small and random but shows a clear presence of GM sweet corn, across provinces and types of vendors,” said CBAN researcher Taarini Chopra. “The results don’t tell us how much of Canada’s sweet corn is GM, but they do tell us that it’s out there, in both grocery stores and farmers markets.”

CBAN tested 43 samples of conventional fresh sweet corn. Half were from Ontario, the rest from BC, Alberta and Nova Scotia. The samples were purchased from outlets of major grocery chains (Loblaw, Walmart and Sobeys) as well as some smaller, independent grocery stores, farmers’ markets and roadside stands.

15 of the 43 samples tested positive. This means that approximately 35% of these sweet corn samples were genetically modified.

GM sweet corn was discovered in samples purchased from Loblaw stores.

GM sweet corn was also present in samples from farmers markets and roadside stands.

Various samples from all four provinces where samples were collected – Ontario, BC, Nova Scotia and Alberta – tested positive.

Testing of samples from Sobeys and Walmart did not find GM sweet corn.

Results are not statistically significant but provide a snapshot of GM sweet corn in Canada, in the absence of mandatory GM food labelling and any government tracking, including statistics on GM crop cultivation.

The tests were conducted by CBAN staff at a lab in Waterloo, Ontario, using strip tests for the GM protein Cry1Ab.

Until recently, GM corn grown in Canada was predominantly field corn, which is used for animal feed, processed-food ingredients and biofuels. GM sweet corn is the first GM whole food grown in Canada and raises new questions for consumers about possible health risks. The sweet corn is genetically engineered with genes from the Bt bacteria to produce proteins that make it toxic to some insects.

“Some farmers might be planting GM sweet corn without knowing that it’s genetically modified or being aware of the consumer concerns,” said Sharratt.

From Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN), www.cban.ca

Canada – purveyor of Frankensalmon

WILD SALMON WARRIOR NEWS

Adam S. Sealey

• With genetically engineered Atlantic salmon expected to be approved for sale in the US any day now, and possibly soon here in Canada, Environment Canada has now approved the commercial production of genetically modified (GM) Atlantic salmon eggs by AquaBounty in their PEI facility. This is an alarming decision making Canada the source of global environmental risk, says the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) and the PEI group Islanders Say No to Frankenfish.

“We are extremely disappointed and alarmed that our government has approved the production of GM fish eggs. GM salmon egg production in Canada endangers the future of wild Atlantic salmon around the world,” says Lucy Sharratt of CBAN.

In November, CBAN sent letters to both the Minister of Environment and the Minister of Health, requesting they answer the question – which they have so far refused to answer – “Is your department reviewing a request to approve GM fish/fish eggs?”

Environment Canada’s approval, published on November 23 in the Canada Gazette, is the first government go-ahead for the company AquaBounty. This is all based on the company’s plan to produce the GM fish eggs in PEI and ship them to Panama for grow-out and processing. They would then ship the GM farmed salmon back up to the US and Canada for consumption. This has to be the most deplorable and alarming example of a corporation trying to own part of what once was the natural food system: the commons.

GM salmon could put even more pressure on marine ecosystems. The fast-growing GM salmon could consume up to five times more food than other farmed salmon; because salmon are carnivorous they actually eat large amounts of wild-harvested fish like anchovies and sardines and great quantities of these will have to be caught just to feed them. This is not sustainable. And even if a tiny fraction of them escape and mate with other fish, as has been shown to occur with brown trout, what are the long-term implications? Nobody knows.

“We’re devastated that Prince Edward Island is now officially the home of the Frankenfish,” said Leo Broderick of the PEI group Islanders Say No. “We don’t want our Island to be the source of this dangerous, living pollution.”

The PEI facility already produces GM salmon eggs for research, which are shipped to the company’s Panama location for further research and development. If fully approved for production and consumption, the GM salmon would be the first GM food animal in the world. Many other GM fish are in the works and the lack of public consultation in this first case sets a very troubling precedent.

“Its unacceptable that this incredibly important decision was made in total secrecy and without any public consultation,” says Sharratt.

Critics have long warned the process of genetic engineering itself could possibly result in increased allergenicity and AquaBounty’s own data point to this potential in their GM salmon.

Dr. Michael Hansen, senior staff scientist at Consumers Union US, says, “The FDA is relying on woefully inadequate data. There is sloppy science, small sample sizes and questionable practices.” For example, the company used insensitive tests to try and measure the levels of growth hormone in the GM salmon and the levels of IGF-1, a hormone linked to a number of cancers.

Express your concerns by writing to the Environment Minister, Hon. Leona Aglukkaq, at www.cban.ca/Resources/Topics/GE-Fish/Write-the-Minister-of-the-Environment

GMO focus must now shift to outright ban, not just labeling

by Paul H. LeMay

• With the “defeat” of citizens’ initiative 522 in Washington state in the first week of November, it’s important to keep in mind that Washington’s final mail-in ballot tally rang in at 48.92% in favour of GMO labelling on food products and 51.08% opposed. That result came about largely because big biotech companies and big junk food companies such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi as well as Nestlé and General Mills collectively contributed $22 million to the “No” side’s shock-and-awe advertising blitz. That campaign was specifically designed to sow genetically modified seeds of doubt in the minds of voters. Doubts about the negative impacts that would come if people came to know what they were eating and drinking.

So where to go next? Some prominent opponents of GMOs, such as doctors Thierry Vrain and Shiv Chopra, insist the focus must now shift to banning all GMO products entirely until they can be proven safe. Allowing them to simply be labelled, they say, confers upon them an implied measure of scientific acceptability as far as their safety goes. They also note these products have not yet been properly tested in Canada in independent long-term safety studies, where the results are openly published. The Canadian government is actually in contravention of its own statutory and regulatory obligations in this regard. What’s more, the government’s failure to protect the health of its citizens likely also represents a violation of article seven of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees security of the person.

Interestingly, the so-called referendum failures in California and Washington state should actually serve as a wake-up to elected officials here in Canada. For example, it’s worth remembering that nearly half of the populations in both states did vote for labelling.

Remember, 48.92% voted for GMO food labels and 51.08% voted against in Washington state while in California it was only fractionally lower – 48.6% for labelling, 51.4% against. In some countries, political parties win power with less than 40% of the popular vote, our own included.

It’s also worth remembering biotech didn’t win these states cheaply. They spent around $40 million dollars in California, about a dollar per state inhabitant. In Washington, the per capita cost actually went up to about three dollars per inhabitant. In other words, it took more money per person to eke out what amounted to be a slightly worse result. What’s more, of the No Campaign’s war chest, $22 million had to come from outside Washington state as only $700 dollars apparently came from within state. The Yes side had $5.8 million from out of state contributors while $2.6 million came from in-state. Imagine what the outcome might have been if the state had a law banning out of state contributions altogether.

In my book, that means biotech can only hold its ground at increasing expense, never a good sign when waging a war.

Many supporters of the I-522 GMO labelling initiative have been critical of the overly “nice-guy” message the proponents of the Yes side adopted. They say they should have made greater use of the health risk message that fuelled political opinion in Europe. This information translated either into complete bans of GMO products in some European states, or at minimum, their mandatory labelling.

Gauging from my own anecdotal experience hearing about mothers of young children who become alarmed when they learn about the poisons they were feeding to their kids, I am convinced the Yes on I-522 campaign should have emphasized these damning aspects of GMOs.

Particularly disheartening is the poor voter turnout in Washington – 45.16%. And we’re talking about an über convenient mail-in ballot here, not a get-your-keister down to the voting station exercise. Moreover, since older folks tend to vote more than younger folks, it suggests that apathy among the young is a major reason the initiative didn’t pass.

I find it really odd. In a country where medical care doesn’t come cheap to the person that gets sick, if this segment of the population more fully grasped the health risks associated with eating GMOs, they might well have been more motivated to support the labelling initiative.

Yet going on about the should haves and could haves is only useful if they’re used as lessons when it comes to the next steps. And there will be next steps. Washington State’s I-522 proponents have already vowed to bring another similar initiative forward in 2016. Let’s hope they use the interval to figure out which particular kinds of messages will get everyone to feel motivated enough to vote in support of GMO labelling.

As for Canada, each of us must write our own Member of Parliament on the matter, calling on them to protect the health of Canadians by insisting on the funding of transparent, independent research on all GMOs now in our food supply. They should also write the Canadian Medical Association, the B.C. Medical Association, the B.C. College of Physicians, the Royal Canadian College of Physicians and Surgeons and the Canadian Nurses Association. Ask them to make their members aware of the long-term animal feeding research coming out of Europe and that GMO foods may be implicated in the reported increased incidence rate of various diseases and the burdens and cost pressures these impose on our health care system.

Paul H. LeMay is an independent science writer. He recently completed a book on the victimization process, co-written with a psychiatrist in Ottawa. He also writes for the Hill Times in Ottawa.

A shot of Tao

Something Nothing

The unheralded virtues of absence

by Geoff Olson

It was a warm summer night on Salt Spring Island. The wine flowed freely as wasps flew reconnaissance missions over dessert dishes. Our host held up her glass and offered us a shot of Tao – a concept, not a drink. “The hollowness of the vessel is as important as the glass itself,” she said, explaining how Taoists appreciated the value of things absent.

When I got home, I plucked a dog-eared copy of the Tao Te Ching from a bookshelf, to sharpen my recollection of Lao Tzu’s original words. “The utility of the cart depends on the hollow centre in which the axle turns,” wrote the Chinese sage in sixth century BC. “Clay is moulded into a vessel; the utility of the vessel depends on its hollow interior. Doors and windows are cut out in order to make a house; the utility of the house depends on the empty spaces.

“Thus, while the existence of things may be good, it is the non-existent in them which makes them serviceable.”

This truism may make perfect sense to Taoists, but such notions fit uneasily in westernized brainpans. For most of us, the word “nothing” conjures up a void, an absence, a lack. Nothingness is shorthand for failure, meaninglessness or just plain nihilism. In the secular, scientific mindset, nonexistence is our final destination after a few decades of putzing around on Earth. The slim volume of one’s life is bracketed by twin eternities of nada, like monstrous bookends. To believe otherwise is supposedly superstitious, pseudoscientific or shame-facedly sentimental.

In this view, we make our ways from the crib to the coffin in an eyeblink of geological time, and that’s it. You get only one shot to make the best of it, although from the perspective of a 13 billion-year-old cosmos, you might as well have never existed at all. Good times.

“Nothing is an awe-inspiring yet essentially undigested concept, highly esteemed by writers of an existentialist tendency, but by most others regarded with anxiety, nausea, or panic,” wrote P.L. Heath for his tongue-in-cheek entry on Nothing for the Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “Nobody seems to know how to deal with it (he would, of course) and plain persons generally are reported to have little difficulty in saying, seeing, hearing, and doing nothing.”

The few positive interpretations of ‘nothing’ in western culture are more comic than cosmic. In an episode from the nineties-era comedy series Seinfeld, Jerry and George make a pitch to a television producer for a new series that sounds strangely familiar. “It’s about nothing!” George exclaims, in a meta-level comment on the world he and his friends are embedded in: a sitcom that leverages life’s minor potholes and into epic pitfalls.

“Emptiness” comes off even worse than “nothing” in western lingo. According to Wikipedia, it is “a human condition is a sense of generalized boredom, social alienation and apathy. Feelings of emptiness often accompany dysthymia, depression, loneliness, anhedonia, despair, or other mental/emotional disorders, including schizoid personality disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, schizotypal personality disorder and borderline personality disorder.” That’s a lot of baggage for one word to carry.

Not surprisingly, “emptiness” has different shades of meaning in Asian cultures, particularly Buddhism. The Sanskrit term Śūnyatā is commonly translated into English as emptiness, but the meanings branch out – depending on the doctrinal context – to voidness, openness, spaciousness and “thusness.” In Mahayana Buddhism, it commonly means that no person or object has an independent phenomenal existence. All things depend on other things and come into being through ‘mutual arising.’ This idea of mutual interdependence, in different language, is now a fixture in present-day ecology, social sciences and physics. The measurer and the measured are forever entangled, dancing an ontological tango that weaves the world into being.

Atoms are 99.99999 percent empty space. In his 1928 book The Nature of the Physical World, Sir Arthur Eddington offered the “parable of the two writing desks.” The first one is the dependable, solid piece of furniture propping up his typewriter. The second was the desk, as imagined by a new generation of physicists, consisting almost entirely of nothingness, with inconceivably small atomic nuclei and electrons separated by empty space a hundred thousand times larger in scale.

“In the world of physics, we watch a shadowgraph performance of familiar life. The shadow of my elbow rests on the shadow-table as the shadow-ink flows over the shadow-paper… The frank realization that physical science is concerned with a world of shadows is one of the most significant of recent advances,” Eddington wrote.

He would have appreciated the mid-century discovery of a subatomic particle called the neutrino – a will-o’-the-wisp that is about as close to nothing as anyone can imagine. A single neutrino can pass through 1,000 light-years of lead without interacting. But how to detect such elusive particles? In a mid-sixties effort to capture neutrinos emitted from the sun, experimental physicists buried a huge tank of perchloroethylene thousands of feet underground in a gold mine in South Dakota, far from the effect of cosmic rays. The detectors installed with the tank didn’t catch the neutrinos themselves, but rather the argon isotope created after the extremely improbable collisions with the nuclei of chlorine atoms. It was like waiting for a passing ghost to topple a candlestick in an abandoned mansion, but the physicists’ patience won out, revealing the spooky neutrinos’ existence.

The elusive subatomic particle inspired the writer John Updike to pen his 1960 poem, Cosmic Gall:


Neutrinos, they are very small. / They have no charge and have no mass / And do not interact at all. / The earth is just a silly ball / To them, through which they simply pass, / Like dustmaids down a drafty hall / Or photons through a sheet of glass.

The first neutrino detectors were kludgy, steampunk-like contraptions compared to CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, which has been tasked to hunt for even stranger prey. The seven-story LHC is the plaything of thousands of scientists from across the world. They accelerate protons to speeds close to the speed of light and smash them together in the guts of the LHC. Because energy is equivalent to mass, the high energies of the collisions conjure up bizarre, heavy particles. It’s a bit like throwing two clocks against each other to discover new components that were never there to begin with.

Analyzing the results of the impacts, the big brains of the LHC believe they have found the footprints of the Higgs particle, one of the subatomic ancestors of the phenomenal world that is responsible for that convincing ‘something’ we call “mass.”

You could say the job of the largest machine ever built is to interrogate the void – the background to our day-to-day foreground. And as particle physicists plunge into smaller scales of the microworld, astronomers penetrate ever-greater distances into the macroworld. They have discovered that normal matter amounts to less that five percent of the mass-energy of the observable universe; the rest is tied up in something called “dark matter” and “dark energy.”

The world we see and interact with – including everything detected by the LHC – appears to be embedded in, or running parallel to, something literally otherworldly, which will most likely require a new physics to describe.

Science has not exorcised magic from the world – it has only succeeded in chasing things “that go bump in the night” to the furthest margins of empirical investigation. According to the most commonly accepted interpretation of quantum theory, subatomic particles don’t exist in the common sense of the word until a measurement is performed on them. Weirder yet, so-called “virtual particles” can emerge from a perfect vacuum – the so-called “zero-point field” – as long as they return to the vacuum in a precise amount of time, set within the constraints of a time/energy variant of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.

“So the modern conception of the vacuum is one of a seething ferment of quantum field activity, with waves surging randomly this way and that,” observes Oxford-trained physicist Paul Davies in New Scientist. And surprise! Turns out you can get a sort of something from this sort of nothing, at least according to theoretical physicists, who put the birth of the universe – that is, our observable universe – down to a quantum hiccup in the zero-point field. In this view, the vacuum is a well of creative potential that birthed space, time, matter and energy like a stochastic Shiva. In other words, our everyday ideas of ‘nothing’ and ‘something’ don’t seem to quite work in the language of science.

Paging Lao Tzu: call on the LHC white courtesy telephone.

In his marvellous 2012 book Why Does the World Exist? author Jim Holt points to a puzzling property of zilch. “Nothingness, in addition to being the simplest, the least arbitrary, and the most symmetrical of all possible realities, also has the nicest entropy profile,” the author observes. In other words, nothingness seems to represent a kind of perfection. Is nothing ‘sacred’? Perhaps not in the usual sense of the word, but physicists insist our cosmos exists in a state of “broken symmetry.” An archaic ‘defect’ in the perfectly symmetric void resulted in the Big Bang and its evolutionary after-effects, which includes our world of barking dogs, Bach fugues and baseball games.

The zero-point field is the Tao dressed up in a lab coat with a pocket protector and it’s as close to you as your next heartbeat. Our shadow world, like Eddington’s shadow desk, contains a creative emptiness at its heart. As Lao Tzu wrote,

The Tao is like a well: / used but never used up. / It is like the eternal void: / filled with infinite possibilities. / It is hidden but always present. / I don’t know who gave birth to it. / It is older than God.

At this point, the average person’s mind starts spinning like a George Costanza sales pitch. With a universe this balls-to-the-wall bizarre, talk of ghosts and poltergeists is hardly any more challenging than ‘squarks’ or ‘gluinos,’ just two of the many theoretical particles drawn up to explain dark matter.

In a seventies-era Pacifica radio broadcast, Zen philosopher Alan Watts mused on the primary strangeness of being a conscious self. “I know that you feel that you are I in just the same way that I feel that I am I. We all have the same background of nothing, we don’t remember having done it before, and yet it has been done before again and again and again, not only before in time but all around us everywhere else in space…

“What has happened once can very well happen again,” he said of our sense of singular, subjective being. “If it happened once it’s extraordinary, and it’s not really very much more extraordinary if it happened all over again…”

The Tao – which is not a ‘name’ for a ‘thing’ but rather the underlying dynamism of the universe – eludes final description. We are not separate from this dynamism so when we try to puzzle it out separately from our own consciousness, we get caught up in Möbius strips of logical paradox.

At the beginning of a new millennium, all our previous ideas about matter, energy and mind appear to be up for grabs. Perhaps scientists will come to realize that sentience runs deeper and wider in this cosmos than previously thought. As Watts observed, “The universe is a system which forgets itself and then again remembers anew so there’s always constant change and constant variety in the span of time. It also does it in the span of space by looking at itself through every different living organism, giving an all-around view.”

Is it possible our widely accepted, negative ideas of nothingness – particularly, the anticipation our personal extinction at death – underlies a great deal of the sickness infecting western culture? It’s likely far more people on Earth fear an eternity of nonexistence more than the fires of a putative Hell. Perhaps the depressive wageslave’s gobbling of SSRI drugs is as much a desperate effort to ward off the spectre of emptiness as the First World’s resource-grabbing crusades on poor nations, which drive the bread-and-circuses of hypercapitalism.

Drugs, sex, work, gambling, religious fundamentalism and all manner of distractions, analogue and digital, are thrown against the troubling idea of nonexistence. All in a frantic, temporary effort to forget our existential condition.

Emptiness isn’t the end of possibility; it’s the beginning. Consider the sculptor who sees the hole in a piece of driftwood not as an absence but the seed of an idea. Or the composer who starts with blank sheets of paper and ends with a symphony. Or the mother who sees the vacant corner lot not as a suburban eyesore, but an opportunity to reconnect her community with the dirt under their feet. Or even the teacher who instructs his students to trust the still, central point within themselves. There are millions and millions of people who bind the fractures in our world of broken symmetry with creativity, compassion and care – all of which are species of love. And that’s hardly ‘nothing.’

It seems to me our overworked, overscheduled, over stimulated culture is long overdue for a shot of Tao. But enough talk. I will leave the closing words to that shadowy figure from sixth century BC: Lao Tzu:

The Tao is like a bellows: / It is empty yet infinitely capable. / The more you use it, the more it produces; / The more you talk of it, the less you understand. / Hold on to the center.

www.geoffolson.com

photo © 72soul

Get uke-in’

The ukulele’s back

MUSIC RISING by Bruce Mason

Langley Ukulele Ensemble
Meet the current Langley Ukulele Ensemble, the nation’s premier uke group that established the City of Langley, BC, as the “Ukulele Capital of Canada.” Comprising 20 musicians, aged 13-21, the group performs 50 to 80 concerts a year – in their community, regionally and globally. In addition to travelling across Canada, they visit the continental US, Japan and Hawaii. Search for their YouTube videos to silence anyone who doubts that jaw-dropping and heart-warming virtuoso music can be played on the ukulele.

• I first encountered it as a tricky word in a childhood spelling bee and was recently embarrassed when told I wasn’t saying it properly. It’s “u-k-u-l-e-l-e,” pronounced “oo-koo-le-lee,” but just plain “uke” may be music to your ears. No matter how you say it or spell it, this happy, humble, under-appreciated, much-maligned runt of the guitar family litter is the come-back kid of musical instruments. A tiny little orchestra with a big following, the ukulele is ubiquitous once again, taking star turns as a global fad, or phase. Most likely, though, it’s a full-fledged phenomena with legs and staying power. On one hand, a flight from high-tech; on the other, a virtual love child of YouTube.

Now that you can spell it and say it, know this too: You too can play it! Yes you can. You. It’s the easiest instrument to learn, according to the Guinness World Records book, thankfully replacing the plastic recorders of music education nightmares. Your child and inner child can sing along with this one to virtually every song ever made. Why, you could be strumming a carol or two before the season is out and Auld Lang Syne by New Year’s Eve.

Almost as important, you can buy a good one for the price of a smart phone. And you can take it anywhere – by backpack, bicycle, plane or on foot – even to a protest march. No need for charging batteries or untwisting headphones. Lay it on your lap or chest when you lie down to gaze skyward. Pass it on to future generations; it’s the best friend you will find in 2014.

ukelele

Where to start? See Common Ground’s October issue (www.commonground.ca) and re-read Lynn McGown’s wonderfully inspiring article“ Yes, you can sing.” Substitute “play ukulele” for “sing.” Lynn approves. Personalize her poetic phrases like “self-soothing friend,” “a way to give form to my myriad emotions” and “has brought me gifts of courage, depth and presence.”

Stay online and browse u-k-u-l-e-l-e. Add your city or province. Eureka! A world beckons on-screen with music stores that stock a mind-boggling array of models and supplies, lifetimes of free video lessons and even a new online magazine, Ukulele. And new friends await in the ever-growing online clubs, groups, jams and circles, packed with fellow travellers on a musical journey.

Spend a little time on the site of the uke group nearest you. In the highly unlikely event there isn’t one, start one yourself. The Vancouver Ukulele Circle (www.vcn.bc.ca/vanukes/) is led by the local “King of the Ukulele,” Ralph Shaw. It’s the oldest ukulele club on the continent, with 600 names on its email list.

The Circle posts the following invite on its website: “Come and experience the folk music of the new millennium. Ukulele is where it’s at! You say you can’t sing and can barely play? No problem! Quality is not an issue. We do this for fun. Sing as loud and free as you like because everyone else (over 100 people) is doing the same.”

Also bookmark Ruby’s Ukes, Vancouver’s ukulele school with classes, workshops and Vancouver’s Ukulele festival (www.rubysukes.ca). As noted on the website, it’s “a haven… for all things ukulele” and was featured in the national radio doc Four Little Strings.

The ultimate must-see (and hear) website is the Langley Ukulele Ensemble at www.langleyukes.com Their motto is “enriching lives through music,” which is what they’ve been doing since a force-of-nature named Peter Luongo arrived centre-stage in 1980. He created a phenomenal legacy that includes the release of 13 recordings (demonstrating remarkable versatility), before passing the director’s uke on to his son.

LUE was featured in the charming documentary Mighty Uke: The Amazing Comeback of a Musical Underdog. “An absolute delight,” opined famed movie critic Leonard Maltin while watching the BC ensemble tear up Flight of the Bumblebee and William Tell Overture. Alumni include virtuoso James Hill, internationally recognized as one of the finest uke players and composers on the planet and dubbed by CBC’s Stuart McLean, the “Wayne Gretzky of ukulele.”

A little history

In 1879, Portuguese immigrants arrived in Honolulu with a small-bodied, four-stringed braguinha. Islanders were enchanted and the landing made front-page news. Edward Purvis, Assistant Chamberlain to the king (Kalakaua, not Elvis) became especially adept. He was a small, energetic man, nicknamed “ukulele,” Hawaiian for “jumping flea.” Among the most enthusiastic aficionados were members of the royal family and it ascended to the Islands’ instrument of choice.

In 1915, at San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition, the relatively new US territory got a chance to strut and strum its stuff, featuring hula dancing and strumming ukuleles, igniting a really crazy craze. Companies churned ukes out; even department stores sold them. Tin Pan Alley songwriters cranked out endless uke-centred novelties, including my favourite: Oh! How She Could Yacki Hacki Wicki Wacki Woo (That’s Love in Honolulu). The romantic, carefree, highly portable and acoustic ukulele took the Hit Parade, the silver screen and the planet by storm, replete with boater hats and Hawaiian shirts.

It has surfed through whitecaps of popularity and troughs of musty comic propdom. In the 50s, folks tuned their new TVs to Arthur Godfrey and his Ukulele four nights a week with on-air lessons. Millions of plastic models – called TV Pals – were sold. These wretched toys and Tiny Tim’s novelty tune Tiptoe Through the Tulips helped put ukes down, but never TKO’d them.

Fast forward to the 90s and a much different tune. Israel Kamakawiwo’ole was all over the place with his 1993 medley of Over the Rainbow and What a Wonderful World especially in TV commercials soundtracks. When YouTube was created, one of the first videos to go viral was Jake Shimabukuro’s rendition of a George Harrison (a uke devotee, himself) masterpiece While My Guitar Gently Weeps. At 12 million hits, Jake’s career was launched. Thousands of videos have followed as the low-tech uke went high-tech. Hopefully, it’s here to stay.

A few tips

Ukuleles come in four registers: soprano, concert, tenor and baritone. The first is, by far, the most popular. Walk into any music store and pick up and plink the least intimidating of all instruments. For $50, you can walk out with a ukulele, picked from all sorts of sizes, colours and shapes, with a gig bag, felt pick and pitch pipe thrown in. Add a few dollars and you have a much less fickle friend for life, barring a yuckee mishap. It will be easier to tune, stay in tune longer, fret better (and we all need a friend that frets well) and outlast you and your kids. Second-hand ukes used to be for sale everywhere for a song and they still show up at yard sales now and then. Look for solid wood; a new Martin Style 5K will set you back five grand. If you’ve got one in the attic, basement or garage, dust it off and take it to a repair person to be set up and re-strung. Get uke-in’. Do you a world of good. Or put one under a tree and say “Merry Ukulele” all year, every year.

Vancouver ukulele nights

The Vancouver Ukulele Circle hosts a ukulele night on the third Tuesday of each month at St. James Hall, 3214 W. 10th Ave. @ Trutch. $8 with or without an instrument. Doors open 6:30PM. Snacks, desserts, coffee, beer and wine are sold or bring your own food. Starts 7:30PM with everyone utilizing a must-have songbook with more than 200 tunes ($15). Something similar and just as spirited and revolutionary is happening – or should be – in your community.

Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic. brucemason@shaw.ca

ukulele player photo © Morganka

GMOs offer no benefits

No to GMO

UPDATES by Bruce Mason

• “There is no scientific consensus on the safety of genetically modified foods and crops,” the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility has declared uncategorically. Dr. Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, head of the International Resource Panel (UNEP) and Club of Rome, adds, “The future of food and agriculture is one of the great challenges of humankind of the 21st century. The claim of scientific consensus on GMO safety is misleading and misrepresents diverse and inconclusive scientific evidence. The full range of scientific research needs to be taken into account, in open, transparent and honest debates which involve the broader society, when decisions of global concern are being made.”

 

The world is awash in GMO information, especially on the web. To separate the wheat from the chaff, it is essential to periodically review the reliable. The Institute for Responsible Technology – “the most comprehensive source of GMO health risk information on the web” – lists 10 reasons to avoid GMOs, a useful checklist and summary, highlighted here:

The fact that GMOs are unhealthy tops the list. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine urges doctors to prescribe non-GMO diets, citing animal studies indicating organ damage, gastrointestinal and immune system disorders, accelerated aging and infertility. It reports human studies show GM foods leave material behind inside of us; for example, genes inserted into soy can transfer into the DNA of bacteria living our bodies.

After GMOs were introduced (1996), Americans with three or more chronic illnesses jumped from 7% to 13% in nine years, food allergies skyrocketed and autism, reproductive disorders, digestive problems and others are on the rise. Doctors’ groups such as the AAEM are warning to not wait before protecting ourselves, especially children, as more potential dangers are clearly identified.

The fact that GMOs contaminate forever – already causing losses for farmers who struggle to keep their crops pure – is a major concern. So is rapidly increasing herbicide use. Between 1996 and 2008, US farmers sprayed an extra 383 million pounds, resulting in herbicide resistant “super-weeds,” requiring ever more toxic herbicide, causing environmental harm and higher residues. Roundup, for example, is linked with sterility, hormone disruption, birth defects and cancer.

Dangerous side effects are created by mixing genes from totally unrelated species; the very process of creating a GM plant can result in massive collateral damage producing new toxins, allergens, carcinogens and nutritional deficiencies.

Fifth on the AAEM list is lax government regulations, justified by the specious claim that GM food is not substantially different, despite overwhelming scientific consensus of unpredictable, hard-to-detect side effects and urgent need for long-term safety studies. An example of corporate influence is the appointment of former Monsanto attorney and vice-president Michael Taylor to US food safety czar, actively promoting biotechnology.

In the past, companies such as Monsanto made claims that Agent Orange, PCBs and DDT were safe and are now utilizing similar superficial and rigged research. Independent scientists are demonstrating without a doubt that industry funded research avoids finding problems and distorts and denies adverse findings while other research and reports are attacked and suppressed.

Despite widespread claims, GMOs do not increase yields. In fact, they work against feeding a hungry world. Sustainable non-GMO agricultural methods in developing countries have resulted in increases of 79% and higher, while GMOs do not, on average, increase yields at all. That is confirmed by the Union of Concerned Scientists’ 2009 report “Failure to Yield,” the definitive study to-date.

As well, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report – authored by more than 400 scientists and backed by 58 governments – states, “Assessment lags behind development, information is anecdotal and contradictory and uncertainty about possible benefits and damage is unavoidable.” It found current GMOs offer nothing to goals of reducing hunger and poverty, improving nutrition, health, rural livelihoods and social and environmental sustainability. In fact, GMOs divert money and resources from safe, reliable and appropriate technologies.

Finally, avoiding GMOs contributes to the coming tipping point of consumer rejection, forcing them out of our food supply. Because GMOs offer no consumer benefits, if even a small percentage rejects brands that contain them, GM ingredients will become a marketing liability. The Campaign for Healthier Eating in America is designed to achieve a tipping point against GMOs, estimating that goal can be reached if just five percent actively shop for non-GMOs. The key is continuing to educate the public about the increasing documented health dangers and making avoiding GMOs much easier.

In a wide-ranging op-ed “GMOs for Profit: The Missing Context of Industrial Agriculture” (Truthout, November 13, 2013) Curt Ries concludes, “It is not what GMOs are that should demand so much attention, but rather, what they do, what they allow and facilitate. In our system of industrial agriculture, their role is unambiguous: To help destructive monocultures become even more productive and, thus, even more destructive to soils and communities; to make farmers increasingly dependent upon and indebted to profit-obsessed corporations; to put at risk the diversity and resilience of our food supply; to facilitate the propagation of disease from agricultural pollutants and unhealthy foods; to contaminate ecosystems and contribute to climate change.

“These are the real and present functions of GMO biotechnology. They are not saviours of the poor and the hungry, nor are they gifts to farmers, consumers or the land. They are tools to grow biotech profits and consolidate corporate control over the food system,” he concludes.

Getting dirty may be healthy

Portrait of David Suzuki

SCIENCE MATTERS by David Suzuki

• For much of human history, we lived close to the natural world. As civilization evolved, we became increasingly urbanized and most of us now live in cities. As we’ve moved away from nature, we’ve seen a decline in other forms of life. Biodiversity is disappearing. The current rate of loss is perhaps as high as 10,000 times the natural rate… It can be a challenge to communicate why this loss is important. We know species diversity is critical to the healthy functioning of ecosystems that provide services on which humans depend. But could we live with fewer?

According to an article in Conservation magazine, there is a link between biodiversity and human health. Ilkka Hanski and his colleagues at the University of Helsinki compared allergies of adolescents living in houses surrounded by biodiverse natural areas to those living in landscapes of lawns and concrete. They found people surrounded by a greater diversity of life were themselves covered with a wider range of different kinds of microbes than those in less diverse surroundings. They were also less likely to exhibit allergies.

What’s going on? Discussion of the relationship between biodiversity and human health is not new. Many have theorized our disconnection from nature is leading to a myriad of ailments. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, says people who spend too little time outdoors experience a range of behavioural problems, which he calls “nature deficit disorder.” It fits with theories of modern ecology, which show systems lacking in biodiversity are less resilient, whether they’re forests or microbial communities in our stomachs or on our skin. Less resilient systems are more subject to invasion by pathogens or invasive species.

Hanski studied a region in Finland where few people move far. He randomly selected 118 adolescents in an equal number of homes. Some were in the city and others in woods or on farms. The team collected skin swabs from subjects and then measured the biodiversity of plants around each house. Their data revealed a clear pattern: higher native-plant diversity appeared to be associated with altered microbial composition on the participants’ skin, which led, in turn, to lower risk of allergies.

The immune system’s primary role is to distinguish deadly species from beneficial, and beneficial from simply innocent. To work effectively, our immune system needs to be “primed” by exposure to a diverse range of organisms at an early age. In this way, it learns to distinguish between good, bad and harmless. If not exposed to a wide array of species, it may mistakenly see a harmless pollen grain as something dangerous and trigger an allergic reaction. We also know that bacteria and fungi compete. Fungi are often associated with allergies and it could be that high diversity of bacteria keeps the fungi in check…

A conclusive explanation for Hanski’s observations is not yet available. More research is needed. But we know we evolved in a world full of diverse species and now inhabit one where human activity is altering and destroying an increasing number of plants, animals and habitats. We need to support conservation of natural areas and the diverse forms of life they contain, plant a variety of species in our yards, avoid antibacterial cleaning products and go outside in nature and get dirty – especially kids. Our lives and immune systems will be richer for it.

With contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Science and Policy Director Mara Kerry. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org