Anti-GM Groups Undermine Global Efforts to Reduce Blindness and Hunger, while Exploiting Canadian Charities

This is a delayed response to a verbal exchange last March in the Ontario Farmer. OMAFRA field specialist Peter Johnson accused Greenpeace of delaying Third-World access to “Golden Rice” with its genetically enhanced levels of Vitamin A. The Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) responded by claiming that Johnson was dead wrong, and that the enhanced rice has almost no potential value in reducing Third-World blindness.

Golden Rice contains genes for carotene production transferred from corn and a common soil microorganism into rice by Swiss and German university researchers. Rice has no natural genes for carotene production. Humans must eat carotene to manufacture vitamin A in the body.

My questions were: 1) Was Peter Johnson wrong? and 2) Who is CBAN and who funds it?

The quick answers are: 1) Absolutely not; Golden Rice can make a huge contribution to Vitamin A nutrition – and 2) CBAN is an anti-agricultural-technology group, funded by a clever end-run on Canadian tax rules governing charities. Taxpayers unwittingly fund their mischief.  Explanations follows.

The answer to the first question comes from the 2010 annual report of the internationally acclaimed International Rice Research Institute and other credible web sites. IRRI is the Philippines-based organization which developed the higher yielding rice varieties which contributed so dramatically to the Green Revolution a few decades ago. Greenpeace is doing all it can to delay the development and release of this valuable technology. “Data” provided by CBAN, in discrediting the potential value of Golden Rice to reduce blindness, come straight from a Greenpeace document. The Greenpeace numbers have been termed unrealistic and extreme by IRRI scientists and others.

IRRI cites referee-journal-published research showing that “eating about a cup of Golden Rice every day is enough to supply 50% of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A for an adult.” I’ll believe IRRI over Greenpeace.

As for the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, its web site shows this to be yet another anti-technology activist group. There are many. Their common dogma is that genetic modification in agriculture is evil, dangerous, and to be avoided at any cost. No matter that about 15 years of global experience involving hundreds of millions of hectares planted to genetically modified crops has not resulted in a single case of human sickness or notable environmental impact. (Contrast this with the number of people who have died in the same period eating manure/bacterial infected organic crops.)

In practice, their disapproval of GM technology is selective. No condemnation of crop genetic variation created by plant/seed exposure to extremely intensive nuclear radiation, also termed “genetically modified organisms” under Health Canada regulations, and widely used in “anti-GMO” Europe. No protestation of the role of genetically modified organisms in making human insulin,  cheese, vitamin B6, and many other food and medical ingredients/treatments.

That this is about big companies and their technologies, and not really about health and environmental risk, is demonstrated in the opposition by activist groups to Roundup-Ready alfalfa. They claim fields planted to this alfalfa will set seed which will spread and reseed in adjacent fields and in the wild. Yet alfalfa rarely sets seed under commercial farming conditions except in controlled seed fields in the western United States. Farmers cannot even get alfalfa to reseed enough to fill in gaps within thinning alfalfa stands. Former OMAFRA organic lead, Hugh Martin, has written about this in a column at . More explicit is a joint article from the Universities of California and Wisconsin at .

Anti-GM opposition has sometimes served to delay technological innovation in North America. GM-induced Fusarium resistance in wheat seems finally on the way after 10-years of delay. Lower-toxin wheats are coming. Activist opposition has also made GM crop introductions very expensive. These groups may have accomplished what they seem to hate most – driving GM technology development and commercialization, at least in the developed world, into the near-exclusive domain of very large multinationals.

It’s annoying in North America. But what the anti-GM groups are doing to exacerbate Third-World hunger and health is far worse. It’s criminal. And it’s much bigger than impeding access to blindness-preventing Golden Rice technology.

Robert Paarlberg, associated with Wellesley College and Harvard University in Massachusetts, has a well-written book entitled, “Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is being kept out of Africa,” with a foreword from Norman Borlaug and Jimmy Carter. There are many related publications but Paarlberg’s is exceptionally well documented. Paarlberg describes how (largely European-based) anti-technology, anti-corporate groups have systematically scared poor African countries into avoiding most forms of modern agricultural improvement – especially the use of modern genetic technology – even when their own people face starvation.

Africans have been told by activists that GM-based foods cause cancer, antibiotic resistance, even HIV-like viral infection, and that these foods are a part of an evil scheme by the United States and multinational companies to control them. Zambia, facing a major drought-induced disaster and humanitarian crisis in 2002, refused to allow food-aid corn to enter the country mainly because of these stated risks. Also, Zambian exports of organic “baby corn” to Europe would be cut off if any GM-containing food aid entered that country. There are too many examples of this despicable behaviour. In 2012, under activist guidance, Kenya delayed for weeks the importation of GM corn to feed starving Somalia refugees until internal and external pressures – and common sense – forced the government to change its mind.

South Africa is the one sub-Saharan country with the knowledge and sophistication to ignore the activists, allowing its farmers to grow genetically enhanced corn for the benefit of South African food supply.

A few years back, Monsanto granted free access to a new drought-resistant GM gene for corn to an international group led by CIMMYT (the Mexican-based international corn and wheat developmental agency) and the Gates Foundation. I’m told that this is the same gene soon to be introduced into North American hybrids. CIMMYT breeders have been incorporating this gene into corn cultivars (varieties) adapted to African conditions and food tastes – with very promising results under drought stress. But activist pressures and highly expensive regulatory processes imposed by European interests have meant that testing has only been allowed in a very few African countries.

Anti-corporate, anti-technology animosity trumps hunger relief.

CBAN apparently represents a minor Canadian contribution to this odious international effort. CBAN is not remotely in the same league as international anti-humanitarian heavyweights such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth – each based in Amsterdam and with staff in excess of 1000 each.

But what has really caught my attention  about CBAN is its funding. This organization has done a remarkably good job in securing money for activist purposes from well-meaning Foundations, and in exploiting flaws in Canadian laws governing charitable tax receipts.

I checked with the Ontario Trillium Foundation (an Ontario Government agency) and the private Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation (focus on Northern Canadian issues), both listed as financial contributors in the 2010 CBAN annual report. Spokespersons for both organizations initially denied that they had funded CBAN, and stated that their policies specifically exclude funding for this type of non-charitable activist activity. However, on further checking, they found that awards had been given for “educational purposes” to the charity, Ecological Farmers of Ontario (EFO), with the latter apparently being the conduit to CBAN. (More on EFO involvement, below.) Funding from the Ontario Trillium Foundation is particularly troubling; Ontarions believe that this public lottery-derived money is used for community development and humanitarian purposes.

Even worse is the way in which CBAN skillfully exploits a loophole in Canadian charitable contributions so that donors get charitable receipts even though CBAN itself does not come close to qualifying as a charity.

The “trick” involves the large charitable organization, Tides Canada, which is closely associated with the larger American charity, Tides. The CBAN web site states, deviously, that “CBAN is a charity under Tides Canada Initiatives” (no listing of this joint entity in the Government of Canada listing of eligible charities) and CBAN provides details on how to exploit the deception. Or you can also use the Tides Canada web site. You donate to Tides Canada, designate your donation to CBAN, and get the taxable credit. CBAN’s non charitable status matters not.

Unlike the Ontario Trillium Foundation and the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation, this is not a case of a charitable foundation being hoodwinked. Tides Canada knows exactly what CBAN is doing.

The Government of Canada has promised a crackdown on this misuse of charitable donations and has targeted Tides Canada. However, government statements to date seem to be focused on the money Tides Canada channels to non-charitable groups other than CBAN. This taxpayer-robbing racket seems to be widely used.

This leads me finally to the Ecological Farmers of Ontario (EFO) which is also a registered charity, but which has been a conduit for the funding of CBAN (and perhaps other activist groups too). The Farm and Food Care Foundation told me this would not be condoned under the rules imposed on them in earning their recent charitable status. And some of the educational material produced by EFO, apparently with Trillium Foundation funding, is certainly slanted against pesticides, synthetic fertilizer and GM crops (it calls the resulting produce “techno-food”) while perpetuating the myth that organic agriculture is pesticide free.

My criticisms of  EFO may now be somewhat historical. They have new board members and the former EFO president during the era of channeling money to CBAN has left and is now a coordinator for the National Farmers Union. The NFU openly supports CBAN – probably using Ontario farm registration money – but at least it does not do so by flouting Canadian tax laws governing charities.