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Agricultural board buries its head in the dirt

Barb Drury wants to keep genetically modified seeds out of Yukon soil. But the Yukon Agricultural Association is waffling. "It's a divisive issue," said Rick Tone.

Barb Drury wants to keep genetically modified seeds out of Yukon soil.

But the Yukon Agricultural Association is waffling.

“It’s a divisive issue,” said Rick Tone.

“And, as the agricultural association’s executive director, I have to be neutral.”

The association’s annual general meeting is at the end of the month, and Drury wanted to see the membership vote on the issue.

Every country in the European Union has placed significant restrictions or outright bans on the production of genetically modified organisms, because they are not proven safe.

Australia, Japan and New Zealand have followed suit.

“But this is Canada,” said Yukon Agricultural Association president Mike Blumenschein.

And the agricultural association “doesn’t have a stand on this,” he said.

The Yukon is one of the few Canadian jurisdictions left that is still free of genetically modified seeds and crops, said Drury.

“And once you let the genie out of the bottle, you can’t stuff it back in.”

Drury wants more information on the effects of genetically modified crops.

“The science is very confused, not very clear and not very conclusive when it comes to the safety of genetically modified organisms,” she said.

Drury blames the biotech companies producing the genetically modified seeds.

“The only research these companies allow are studies that they do themselves,” she said.

Both Canada and the US have approved commercial production of GMOs based on studies conducted by the companies who created them and profit from their sale, she said.

“And we don’t know what the effects of these foods will be down the road.”

Genetically modified organisms have only been around for 30 years, said Drury.

“That’s not long enough to know the long-term effects.”

Some scientists are questioning whether the sudden spike in obesity is linked to genetically modified foods.

At the beginning of April, Drury gave a presentation on genetically modified organisms to the agricultural association board.

“I wanted to invite the whole membership to this presentation,” said Drury.

A few weeks before the presentation, she asked Tone and Blumenschein to send out an email to the membership of roughly 100.

A few days before the presentation, Drury still hadn’t seen any emails.

So she called up Blumenschein.

The board president told Drury he didn’t want the membership notified.

“I was confused by this,” she said.

“It was nonsensical.

“Why shouldn’t the membership become better informed?”

A few days later, when Drury gave her presentation, only a handful of board members were present.

The membership didn’t know about it.

“This would have to be discussed before putting it out to the general membership,” said Blumenschein.

“But nothing has been brought forward.”

Drury’s presentation doesn’t count, he added, when asked if this was not an instance of bringing the issue forward.

“We’d have to have more reason than a presentation to bring it up with the membership,” he said.

“The Yukon Agricultural Association’s president has refused to let the membership know about any ongoing discussion in regard to GMOs,” said former association member and Yukon organic farmer Tom Rudge.

“Sounds a lot like a controlling directorship.”

In 2007, Rudge presented the Yukon legislative assembly with a petition calling for a 10-year moratorium on genetically modified seeds in the territory.

More than 1,500 people signed it.

The agricultural association “didn’t support the petition,” said Blumenschein.

But the membership never voted on the issue.

So how did Blumenschein know the membership didn’t support the petition?

“We got some letters,” he said.

“And we sent out emails.”

So why not send out emails again, to poll the membership about a possible ban on genetically modified seeds and crops in the territory?

“What good would it do?” said Blumenschein.

“We don’t want to take a position because it would split the membership.”

The agricultural association feels it’s the umbrella organization for all of agriculture in the Yukon, said Rudge.

“But by refusing to speak about GMOs, they are saying they do not represent the organic sector at all,” he said.

“It actually appears like the association is choosing not to have anything to do with organic agriculture, not willing to support it

- the largest growing sector in Canada’s agricultural economy.

“It’s a rather bizarre stance to take for an organization who has yet to allow its members to openly discuss this stuff.”

A discussion about genetically modified seed and crops “doesn’t line up with the business of our annual general meeting,” said Blumenschein.

“It won’t be brought up.”

In a public society, registered in the Yukon, “any member has the right to have their say in a meeting,” said Rudge.

“It sounds as though this simple right is being refused.”

Drury wants to see a motion voted on at the upcoming meeting.

It would read:

“We move that the Yukon Agricultural Association oppose the growth and cultivation of genetically modified crops in the Yukon.”

It’s up to the president to make a ruling on this and decide if there’s going to be a vote, said Tone.

“How would we have a vote?” said Blumenschein.

“In my seven years with the association we’ve never had a vote.

“And even if the board members voted, it would be up to the government to decide.”

Until recently, genetically modified seeds weren’t much of a threat to the territory, because crops like soy beans, corn and canola wouldn’t grow in such a northern climate, said Drury.

But a new genetically modified alfalfa was just approved in the US, and that would grow up here, she said.

Once one farm starts growing genetically modified crops, it will taint all the farms, said Drury.

The seeds are dominant and spread to other fields, “which would ruin it for organic and conventional farmers,” said Drury.

It’s just like an invasive species, said Tone.

“On the one hand, farmers want to be able to avail themselves of the best technology,” he said.

“But on the other, there’s the question of health and wayward seeds, especially for organic farmers who don’t want them on their land.”

Tone appreciated Drury’s presentation, but “is not sure everybody liked it,” he said.

“It depends which side of the fence they’re on.”

Banning genetically modified crops would tick off the conventional farmers, said Blumenschein.

And if the association doesn’t ban them, the organic farmers will be upset, he said.

“So we’re not for it or against it.”

If the agricultural association doesn’t take a stand on this, “they are basically saying we don’t support organic farmers in the Yukon,” said Rudge.

“This is something that could end my livelihood as an organic farmer.”

A few years back, the agricultural association board passed a resolution to discuss genetically modified seeds and their potential effects in the Yukon.

But those discussions never happen, said Rudge.

“There is a lack of willpower to do anything.”

Rudge would like to see an “open dialogue” with farmers, the agricultural association and Yukoners.

“What are they afraid of?” he said.

“Why are they burying their heads in the sand?

“This needs to be discussed.”

The agricultural association’s annual general meeting is on April 30 at the High Country Inn.

The meeting starts at 10 a.m.

It’s open to the public.

For more information call 668-6864.

Drury is also giving another presentation on genetically modified seeds and crops on Wednesday, April 27. It’s upstairs at the Alpine Bakery at 7:30 p.m.

Contact Genesee Keevil at