Over the past 15 years, agricultural biotechnology has taken hold in North America.
Increased crop yields, improved food quality, and reduced use of pesticides by genetically modifying or manipulating existing plant species are seen as the benefits of such technology.
But according to a new book, Resistance is Fertile: Canadian Struggles on the BioCommons, biotechnology is dominated by corporate interests and does not in fact benefit farmers or consumers.
Author Wilhelm Peekhaus, of the School of Information Studies at UW-Milwaukee, says there are many social and economic issues raised by developments in biotechnology.
Peekhaus first explains that the Canadian biotechnology industry specifically has received a huge amount of support from its government, and this helped to establish its prominence.
“The major driving focus behind the thinking of the government in terms of championing biotechnology is as a motor for economic growth,” Peekhaus says.
But these economic gains seem to be limited to those at the top of the industry, perhaps as the result of exploitation of conventional seed markets. Peekhaus points to the “onerous terms that farmers have to agree to when they actually purchase the seeds” from large agricultural biotechnology companies, like Monsanto.
The public is increasingly consuming genetically modified plant species. Peekhaus says they have been used primarily in the production of foods like chips and sodas - in other words, junk food.
“The main way that consumers come into contact with genetically engineered foods would be through the processed foods that we eat,” he says. Processed food industries are heavily reliant upon high-fructose corn syrup, soybean and canola oil, the majority of which come from genetically engineered plant species.
When researchers publish data that seems to present biotechnology in an unsavory light, Peekhaus says, “the biotech industry has a very strong public relations arm that is very quick to jump on board and start attacking these studies and the actual scientists carrying them out.” As a result, these findings rarely see the light of day.
Peekhaus cites research concluding that “pesticide use has actually increased quite substantially” since the introduction of genetically modified cash crops 15 years ago. In that time, “a number of weed species have evolved resistance to glyphosate, which is the active ingredient” in herbicides, which Peekhaus says led to the use of “around 400 million more pounds of pesticide.” He notes that “nature has a good track record of finding alternate pathways to compensate for things that man tries to do to it.”
Peekhaus says the biotechnology industry is not interested in the broader implications of their business practices, that “they are really only interested in turning a profit.” The decreased amount of public research into agricultural biotechnology and a shift over to research for the sole purpose of product marketing has prevented “a number of crops that would be relevant for developing countries” from making it onto the research agenda.
Resistance is Fertile spends a great deal of time focusing on protest movements against Canadian biotechnology. Peekhaus says their primary goal is to “open up the debate” behind biotechnology and make research of all viewpoints more accessible to the public.
Dr. Wilhelm Peekhaus teaches in the school of Information Studies at UW-Milwaukee.