Genetically engineered crops the most precise method to develop new varieties

By Harry Siemens

Profile photo of Robert Wager

Robert Wager is a faculty member of, Biology Department, Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo, BC.

His training is in biochemistry and molecular biology but is an independent scientist with zero financial connection to the biotechnology industry. 

Wager’s focus is on genetically engineered research, educating the public, giving many talks, and writing articles explaining different aspects of GE technology.

In a recent interview, Wager says GE  crops are crops where scientists have changed certain traits by moving in DNA from other sources. These crops are very popular with farmers and 

today over 90 percent of corn, cotton, soybeans, sugar beets are planted with GE crop varieties in North America, not to mention canola.

His message to farmers is to actually stand up and speak directly and supporting what they do.

“Farmers would not plant these crops in the acreages that they do unless they believe these crops benefit the environment, and the farmer’s’ bottom line,” he says. “In both these cases, economic and environmental benefits are both well  documented for these crops.”

What about all the negativity that we’re hearing 

Wager says the vast majority of that comes from scared people because they’ve read false information on the internet. Often this false information is put forward by people who are trying to sell alternative products. 

But it isn’t only coming from those people. 

“No, it’s not,” he says. “Some people have ideological reasons against this type of technology, but the reality is agriculture is, by definition, the manipulation of the DNA of plants and animals to suit our needs. That is what agriculture is. GE technology is just the latest technique, and by far, the most precise method we’ve ever used to change the DNA of our foods.”

Some years ago, scientists even changed insulin from what it was before, to where today it isn’t nearly as allergic to people needing it to give them everyday life. 

Virtually all the insulin that is on the market now is a genetically engineered product. 

“They took the human gene for insulin and now grow it up in microorganisms,” says Wager. “Before we had to isolate the insulin from the pancreas of cows or pigs. So there were many issues with cross-reactivity when you are injecting proteins from another species into humans. So now we use just the human protein that is grown up in microorganisms.” 

What can farmers do because so often they get the short end of the stick. If farmers kept listening and absorbing all that negativity, they would get concerned about they’re growing. At the same time, they also often find it challenging to take a stand and speak out.

“Farmers traditionally have always worried about farming and are very good at it,” he says. “Canadian farmers are some of the most productive farmers in the entire world. They have concentrated on producing the best quality food, the highest yields, and the least amount of environmental impact. GE crops have helped in that respect. However, today people and organizations spend large amounts of money, trying to convince people that GE crops technology is not good, but bad. We’re talking billions of dollars, which  here does buy much influence.” 

Wager says farmers are finding themselves facing a backlash of people who think they know what the technology is about, and farmers are not quite sure how to deal with it. In the past, the average person did not care about primary food production. All they cared about was price and quality at the Supermarket. Today people are more interested in how people produce food at the primary level. So farmers are faced with questions that they’ve never had to think about in the past.

“I would argue farmers know this technology better than anybody because they have used it for 20 years,” he says. “What farmers need to do is tell the public or whoever comes asking questions exactly what they do and why they do it. They don’t need to get into the science because that debate is at another level; they need to talk to the public about why plant a GE crop in a field and how it had changed the way they farm compared to previous years when these options were not available.”  

How did Robert Wager get to the point of being so in favour of GE crops?

“My training is in the sciences, molecular biology and biochemistry and teaching these techniques to students at the university level for 20 years now,” he says. “When I first started looking into GE crops around 2,000, it was clear most of the information on the net was false and misleading, designed to generate fear, not to educate. So I began a public education program for myself, my area of research., trying to explain the science and the context of this science concerning all agriculture to the public. Demystify the science and remove the jargon.”