Reframing the GMO Debate

A recent phone-in on CBC’s Maritime Noon on the issue of labelling products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) left me irritated and frustrated with both sides of the debate. As an enthusiastic and, dare I say, popular seed-saving educator, I never fail to be asked about my views on GMOs. Often, I will divert the question to keep the momentum of the workshop, because I usually have a lot of material I want to cover in a limited time. On occasion, people misconstrue this response as either an insufficiency—or an excess—of activism, depending which side of the issue they are on, when it is neither. This is a difficult and nuanced issue and I have a carefully thought out position and principle of engagement that doesn’t lend itself to a quick answer. This principle informs everything I do and teach about seeds, no matter how small.

Seed envelopes. (Source: Pinterest)

I will say at the outset that I am opposed to the use and dissemination of GMOs and a strong proponent of ecologically sound and sustainable agriculture. That is a given. But how I frame my position in this debate sometimes sets me against both sides. For a start, I often feel I am waging a one-woman battle against bad science and sloppy thinking. On both sides. With respect to GMOs, I find there are scientists lined up on both sides of the virtual room throwing studies at each other. One study says there are measurable health effects from ingesting GMO food, another says there are none. One says that, properly used, there is no significant environmental impact, another clearly indicates where this has already occurred. I want to scream when I read another article that says “Studies show….” Which studies? Who did them? What was their sample size? Did they indicate causation or correlation?

Most men over the age of 50 think the Rolling Stones are a great band, but turning 50 does not cause you to like the Stones. That is a correlation. It isn’t my intention to review the scientific literature here—or anywhere—there are never clear winners in this sort of scientific ping-pong game. The debate is not fundamentally or only a scientific one. It is more about the decisions we need to make as a society about control of the food system, the kind of agriculture we want and the kind of food and agronomic culture which enhances that vision rather than detracts from it. When the discussion is about values, no one can claim to hold the moral high ground. This is not a debate where dubious or contrary science and ideology can play a role. It is a communal exchange. So when I am asked to talk about this issue, I prefer to set down the ping-pong paddle and polemics and speak from that perspective.

GMOs, whatever your personal feelings about them, introduce elements into the environment in ways that are lasting, yet unpredictable in their larger effect. Spraying Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis, a natural pesticide) in my orchard has an effect that does not last more than three days, and so has only a minor impact on the ecosystem. Planting Bt GM corn puts it into the environment 24/7 for, literally, months. While the crop scientists are confident they can control or mitigate the undesired effects, like increased resistance in the target pests, I find that most of them don’t even understand the effects, being biochemists, not ecologists. Ten years ago, when Co-op Seeds first offered transgenic (that is, GM) seed, absolutely no mention was made about planting buffer zones of genetically ordinary crops in their annual Field Crop Guide. Now, those instructions come with the seed. Too little, too late. And the onus is on the farmer to follow the suggestions, whether or not they understand why they exist.

Framing the discussion this way sidesteps the issue of whether or not we have the ability to manage what we have wrought (ping-pong again) and gets right to the the difficult problem of trust and communication between science, industry and the broader society.


GMO technology is often hailed as the new Green Revolution, which can increase our productivity to feed a hungry planet. Once again, if you take apart what is meant by productivity, the picture changes.

In its simplest terms, profit or productivity on a farm is measured by the output: crops minus inputs including fertilizer, seed, equipment, labor, land prices, bank loan interest. Higher yields generally mean higher productivity, even with a somewhat increased cost for seed and fertilizer (let’s leave out the effects of world markets); however, a farm is not like a factory’s closed loop production model. Climate in general and individual weather events have profound effects on what productivity means in a given year, and in subsequent years. A high-yielding cultivar is often only high-yielding in perfect growing conditions. GM seed is usually just a standard cultivar with a tacked-on bonus. There has rarely been anything done to enhance the agronomic qualities beyond that.

Anti-Monsanto protest

People express their love for organic agriculture, bees, and the freedom to choose natural seeds at a community rally in Olympia, Washington. (Photo by Brylie Oxley, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Since so much of our crop losses come from pests and disease, this does make a certain economic sense. However, that cultivar may not produce as well or at all in more challenging conditions— drought, wet, low fertility, weed pressure, heavy soils, light soils, marginal regions like Cape Breton. If you can only get off a decent crop three out of five years in those conditions, while a lower yielding but more resilient variety—that costs a lot less because you were allowed to save your own seed year to year—kept doggedly producing through thick, thin, hell and high water, you think differently about what productivity means. If you can only achieve these high yields on level, high-priced farmland using large machines with the attendant capital investment, this also changes how productivity is measured. Often the profit margin becomes so thin that more land must be put under cultivation to maintain the same income level for the farmer. The expense of these boutique seeds and the production model is often out of reach for small-scale farmers both here and in the global south. This vision of agriculture has some serious implications in a world still struggling with its approach to climate change and social justice.


On the other hand, I can’t tell you how often I have had to listen to people, well-meaning people, many of them my friends, speak about the imagined ill-effects of GMOs to a willing but uncritical and uninformed audience. One such claim is that GMOs cause obesity and diabetes. I had to give a talk to a group of crop scientists the day after this particular claim aired on CBC ‘s The Current and I wanted to crawl down a mouse hole rather than show up and be asked—and decline—to defend it. This kind of talk may play to the converts but in the long run, it has the opposite of its intended effect. It damages the credibility of a reasoned position and fails to persuade the thoughtful undecided.

Bags of seeds.

Photo by Jack Dykinga via US Department of Agriculture

I am not an apologist for poor or misrepresented science on the pro-GMO side of the debate. That missing advice about non-GM buffers really bothers me. The lack of cross-discipline examination of the effects of these practices is a serious gap, one which scientists should acknowledge and remedy. But since most crop science is funded by industry at academic institutions strapped for cash, this seems unlikely. Scientific method and principles may be immutable but scientists are people like the rest of us, subject to the need to work and earn a living, sometimes in ways they dislike themselves. More than one researcher has told me about the struggle to produce unbiased results, especially when their funding came from industry. (Mind you, although Louis Pasteur turned out to be right in his initial hypothesis, he was famous for shoddy experimental practices and faking his results when they didn’t turn out the way he wanted.)

I don’t expect everyone to adopt my ideas or thinking. I want only to explain why it is I refuse to stray into the rhetoric of ideology or quote misunderstood science. This refusal is sometimes perceived as not “activist” enough. But I could not disagree more. Living your life in thoughtful engagement and exchange with your community is easier through actions than argument. The very act of saving seed in a careful, principled way is the most profound kind of activism. Set your feet on good earth and sound science and no one can move you. And if anyone tries to throw industry by-lines and half-baked science at YOU, you can throw it right back. The moral high-ground then becomes rock solid.



Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.