Pesticides and food: It’s not a black and white issue

Special 6-part series starting on

FIRST ARTICLE: Has pesticide use decreased over the last 40 years?

David Suzuki: Canada’s ‘science guy’ turned eccentric anti-GMO, chemical scaremonger?

January 5, 2019 |
Name
David Suzuki
Residence
Canada
Nationality
Canadian
Education
Ph.D, Zoology, University of Chicago

David Suzuki is a zoologist turned popular host of science and environmental television and radio programs in Canada. He has made several documentaries and written over 50 books, including many children’s science books. Suzuki is an environmental activist who controversially advocates against genetically modified foods, pesticides and other products and technologies that he views as unnecessary and destructive human interventions in the natural world.

The David Suzuki Foundation, which he co-founded in 1990, is an influential environmental advocacy organization in Canada, pushing for science-based action on climate change and protecting the oceans, but also for outright bans of GMOs as well as several commonly-used safe pesticides–positions outside the science mainstream. Suzuki stepped down from his foundation’s board of directors in 2012 due to concerns that his controversial science views, which many critics believe are outside the mainstream, would jeopardize the organization’s nonprofit status in Canada.

Suzuki has a Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Chicago and was the head of one of Canada’s largest genetics labs, at the University of British Columbia. He said he made the decision to turn away from genetics research in the early 1980s because he believed the dangers of its application outweighed the benefits. “I deliberately chose to refrain from any experimentation involving recombinant DNA. I stopped applying for government grants and finally terminated my career in active research,” he wrote.

As his interest in research waned, his celebrity in Canada, and worldwide, grew. He is most well-known as the host of the popular Canadian Broadcasting Corporation television show The Nature of Things, which he took over in 1979. Suzuki has been named Canada’s “Most-Trusted Influencer” multiple times, most recently in 2015 by Reader’s Digest, which dubbed him “the éminence grise of environmentalism.”

Despite his background in genetics, Suzuki’s views on genetic engineering are not in line with the scientific consensus on their safety. Suzuki has spoken publicly about his concerns with GMOs and his foundation advocates against their use. He has written that “products of biotechnology are being rammed into our food, onto our fields and into our medicines, without any public participation in discussions and with the complicity, indeed, the active support and funding of governments. But there are profound health, ecological and economic ramifications of this activity.”

cd d ade ba c a f fIn a 1999 CP Wire article, Suzuki is quoted as saying: “Any politician or scientist who tells you these products are safe is either very stupid or lying.” In June 2016, 110 Nobel Laureates publicly endorsed a statement affirming that GM foods are as safe or safer than non-GMO varieties. A PEW survey of American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2015 found 88% also believed GMOs were safe–a stronger consensus than the belief that global warming is human-induced.

Suzuki’s claim is often advanced as a challenge to the scientific consensus by activists, such as Jeffrey Smith in this hilarious Comedy Central satire on the bogus science behind some anti-GMO beliefs, and by anti-GMO NGOs, such as GMWatch.

Screen Shot at PM

In an interview featured on the American Scientist website, Suzuki argued that the science behind GMOs has not been proven and therefore GMO crops should not be hurried to farmers. “I am shocked at how little my colleagues in genetics pay attention to history. They actually forget how ignorant we are—that although we have achieved incredible manipulative powers, we know next to nothing about the real world in which those manipulations will reverberate,” he said. In an interview with CBC TV, Suzuki claimed that the science showing GMOs are safe is “very, very bad science” and that the commercialization of GMOs is “driven by money.” In 2013, Suzuki fielded live questions on an Australian television show and was asked several questions by Australian professors critical of his views on GMOs. To one question, Suzuki responded that he is “ashamed of his colleagues in genetics” for not being open-minded to the possibility of negative effects. His foundation’s website includes an “Understanding GMO” page which claims, “the safety of GMO foods is unproven and a growing body of research connects these foods with health concerns.”

In contrast to Suzuki’s views, Health Canada, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the  American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, and several other scientific and medical institutions from around the world have all concluded that genetically modified foods are safe to eat. A National Academies of Sciences report which reviewed more than 900 studies found that “no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.”

Suzuki’s idiosyncratic science beliefs have been criticized by several journalists and scientists. “The reality of David Suzuki now seems completely at odds with the perception of David Suzuki. On a number of issues, he is not informing Canadians, but misinforming them. Rather than scientists getting their messages out through David Suzuki, they’re having to undo the damage his words are causing,” wrote Rob Breckenridge in the National Post in 2014.

“Many environmentalists have assured me in private—for obvious reasons, environmentalists dare not disagree with the Most Trusted Canadian in public,” wrote Stephen Gordon at Maclean’s in 2012. He has been criticized for saying that Canada should not accept more immigrants because the country is at its environmental capacity. During an open forum in 2013, Suzuki was criticized for his views on GMOs by an Australian scientist working on biofortified GMO banana research intended to improve the health of the world’s poorest citizens.Causes of Cancer

Suzuki has also made claims about other scientific issues that are at odds with consensus science. In a January 2017 article posted by the activist site EcoWatch, Suzuki wrote, “scientists suggest up to 90 percent of cancer is caused by environmental factors,” without citing a source. He places the blame on “massive use of pesticides, artificial fertilizers and literally tens of thousands of different molecules synthesized by chemists.” That grossly contradicts mainstream science. Suzuki’s 90 percent figure contrasts with the National Cancer Institute’s review of the academic literature, which estimated that 4 to 19 percent of cancers are caused by involuntary exposure to environmental exposures and only a tiny fraction of that linked to pesticides and other chemical exposure.

Education

Suzuki attended Amherst College in Massachusetts where he earned a B.A. in Biology in 1958. He earned a Ph.D. in Zoology from the University of Chicago in 1961.

Career

Academic

Suzuki worked at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory from 1961 to 1962, then as an assistant professor at the University of Alberta from 1962 to 1963. From 1963 until his retirement in 2001, he was a professor in the department of genetics at the University of British Columbia.

Broadcasting

In 1970, Suzuki began his television career with the weekly children’s show Suzuki on Science. He founded the radio program Quirks and Quarks in 1974. Suzuki is best known for hosting The Nature of Things, a Canadian Broadcasting Company television series, which began in 1979. The series has aired in nearly fifty countries worldwide. Suzuki’s 1985 series, A Planet for the Taking, averaged more than 1.8 million viewers per episode and earned him a United Nations Environment Programme Medal. In 1993, he hosted the Public Broadcasting Service series The Secret of Life. Suzuki published a book, The Sacred Balance, in 1997, which was made into a five-hour mini-series on Canadian public television in 2002. Suzuki also produced Yellowstone to Yukon: The Wildlands Project for the Discovery Channel in 1997.

Author

Suzuki is the author of 52 books, including 19 for children. Popular titles include David Suzuki: The Autobiography, Tree: A Life Story, The Sacred Balance, Genethics, Wisdom of the Elders, Inventing the Future, and the series of children’s science books, Looking At Senses. He won the Nautilus Book Award for his 2011 book The Legacy.

Activism

Suzuki has written articles, given interviews to journalists, and spoken publicly about his views on science and environmental issues. Although he is better known for his activism on climate change issues, he has also taken on the issue of genetically modified organisms. Suzuki has given interviews to reputable media outlets on the dangers that GMOs pose to human health.

He has written that “products of biotechnology are being rammed into our food, onto our fields and into our medicines, without any public participation in discussions and with the complicity, indeed, the active support and funding of governments. But there are profound health, ecological and economic ramifications of this activity.” In a 1999 CP Wire article, Suzuki is quoted as saying: “Any politician or scientist who tells you these products are safe is either very stupid or lying.” In an interview featured on the American Scientist website, Suzuki argues that the science behind GMOs has not been proven and therefore GMO crops should not be hurried to farmers. “I am shocked at how little my colleagues in genetics pay attention to history. They actually forget how ignorant we are—that although we have achieved incredible manipulative powers, we know next to nothing about the real world in which those manipulations will reverberate,” he said. In an interview with CBC TV, Suzuki argues that the science showing GMOs are safe is “very, very bad science” and that the commercialization of GMOs is “driven by money.” In 2013, Suzuki fielded live questions on an Australian television show and was asked several questions by Australian professors critical of his views on GMOs. To one question, Suzuki responded that he is “ashamed of his colleagues in genetics” for not being open-minded to the possibility of negative effects.

David Suzuki Foundation

The David Suzuki Foundation was co-founded by Suzuki and his second wife Tara Cullis in 1990 after Suzuki issued a public warning that the world was facing impending environmental catastrophe linked to climate change on his hit CBC radio program, It’s a Matter of Survival. It is a non-profit environmental organization incorporated in both Canada and the United States. It is headquartered in Vancouver, British Columbia, with offices in Montreal and Toronto. The organization’s mission is “to protect the diversity of nature and our quality of life, now and for the future.” Its vision is “that within a generation, Canadians act on the understanding that we are all interconnected and interdependent with nature.” In 2015, the organization’s revenues totaled $11,961,236. According to their website, individual donors provide 55 percent of the foundation’s budget.

The foundation’s website includes an “Understanding GMO” page which claims, “the safety of GMO foods is unproven and a growing body of research connects these foods with health concerns.”

Suzuki stepped down from the foundation’s board of directors in 2012 due to concerns that his political views would jeopardize the organization’s nonprofit status in Canada.

Criticisms

Suzuki’s activism has been criticized by several journalists and scientists. “The reality of David Suzuki now seems completely at odds with the perception of David Suzuki. On a number of issues, he is not informing Canadians, but misinforming them. Rather than scientists getting their messages out through David Suzuki, they’re having to undo the damage his words are causing,” wrote Rob Breckenridge in the National Post in 2014. “Many environmentalists have assured me in private—for obvious reasons, environmentalists dare not disagree with the Most Trusted Canadian in public,” wrote Stephen Gordon at Maclean’s in 2012.

In 2013, Suzuki fielded live questions on an Australian television show and was asked several questions by Australian professors critical of his views on GMOs. He has been criticized for saying that Canada should not accept more immigrants because the country is at its environmental capacity.

Personal Life

Suzuki was born in 1936 in Vancouver, British Columbia. During World War II, the Canadian government sold the family’s dry-cleaning business, sent Suzuki’s father to a labor camp, and placed the rest of the family, including Suzuki, in an internment camp due to their Japanese heritage. After the war, Japanese Canadian families were forced to move east of the Rocky Mountains. The Suzukis moved to London, Ontario, where David attended London Central Secondary School.

Suzuki was married to Setsuko Joane Sunahara from 1958 to 1965. The couple had three children, Tamiko, Troy, and Laura. In 1973, Suzuki married his second wife, Tara Elizabeth Cullis, 13 years his junior, with whom he had two daughters, Severn and Sarika. Following in her father’s footsteps, Severn Cullis-Suzuki is a Canadian environmental activist, speaker, television host, and author. David Suzuki has six grandchildren.

Sources

  1. http://davidsuzuki.org/what-you-can-do/queen-of-green/faqs/food/understanding-gmo/
  2. http://action2.davidsuzuki.org/monarchmanifesto
  3. http://action2.davidsuzuki.org/neonics
  4. http://www.ecowatch.com/suzuki-biocentism-2203324815.html
  5. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/substances/carcinogens
  6. http://www.davidsuzuki.org/david/complete-book-list/
  7. http://www.americanscientist.org/bookshelf/pub/david-suzuki
  8. http://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/david-suzuki-speaks-out-against-genetically-modified-food
  9. http://www.davidsuzuki.org/about/our-story/
  10. http://www.davidsuzuki.org/about/
  11. http://www.davidsuzuki.org/donate/financial-information/
  12. http://www.davidsuzuki.org/about/faq/#where-does-the-foundations-funding-come-from
  13. https://www.realagriculture.com/2013/09/david-suzuki-gets-challenged-by-actual-scientists-in-australia/
  14. http://www.torontosun.com/2013/09/27/down-under-blunder-david-suzuki-unmasked-as-a-know-nothing-huckster-on-australian-tv
  15. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1hKdmQMVJ70
  16. http://www.davidsuzuki.org/david/
  17. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Severn_Cullis-Suzuki

 

16 thoughts on “David Suzuki: Canada’s ‘science guy’ turned eccentric anti-GMO, chemical scaremonger?”

  1. Suzuki owns a decent little cottage on Quadra Island, BC. Years ago, the stench of a fish farm ‘Mort’ site wafted to his particular piece of paradise. Purportedly, this began his crusade, along with that of his foundation, against fish farms and ‘Frankenfood’ as there was some GMO work being done on the farmed salmon.
    A similar friction between fish farms and the at the time environmentalist Alexandra Morton occurred up in Echo Bay. She was a fringe scientist out in the BC boonies who had gone off the grid with her husband. Industry in the form of fish farms disturbed her Garden of Eden and she began her crusade similar to Suzuki’s.
    I attended an university lecture of Suzuki’s back in 1984 and admired the man and his CBC show. Now, that lustre of admiration is tarnished and I pass over the Nature of Things.
    These Luddite scientists won’t be happy until the scourge of humanity is eradicated from the planet.

    • I read somewhere that a San Fransisco billionaire donated a considerable amount to the Suzuki foundation because he was concerned about fish farming wiping out the wild salmon industry. Suzuki clandestinely funded research to show that a parasite was infesting the farmed salmon. It turned out the study was false. It seems that the Suzuki foundation is more of a PR firm and lobbyist organization than being concerned about the environment

    • Actually we care a great deal and are very active ensuring the science is safe before it is released. What tests not already done in the evaluation of GE crops would you like to see added and why?

      • Well, I hope you do take great care, and am glad to hear you at least say that you do.

        It’s a big mistake to let the only testing done be performed by the corporations who create the artificial plants, without even oversight. Sure, big companies have enough money to do it, but I know as do you that they never tell the public about the problems they have, even serious problems. They will all cut corners, less responsible companies will get into the act, if this stuff is not managed well we could have whole wars fought using engineered plants. Think this is unreal? Use your head–we’ve got to look ahead and see what can happen.

        The very first edibal product from Genetic engineering killed scores of people and injured a thousand people! (Tryptophan supplement).

        K. Planticola could have been a disaster!

        You companies want to earn big bucks–you are not most deeply interested in the advancement of humanity and the Earth biosphere–as you should be. Wanting to earn big bucks for yourselves, you are going to do things that prove extremely destructive to others. It is essential that the control of central aspects of life, like the biosphere’s gene-pool, not be left in the hands of intrinsically selfish companies.

        You say you care a great deal–does that include caring about all the effects of genetic engineering? Then create public organs to handle this stuff–I’m sorry, but no matter how much you might say it, I will not believe that profit-making companies are anywhere near to being primarily or even strongly motivated by Public Interest.

        Specifically to your query–long-term epidemiological studies of all GMO’s are desperately needed. Ecosystem studies on the effects of Roundup and all glyphosate-products is urgently needed. Long-term studies of most everything you’ve ever studied is desperately needed. Research on the effects of complex mixtures of agricultural chemicals (and all modern chemicals) is urgently needed. Research on how to create long-term-productive low-energy-consuming low-toxin-producing workable complex agro-ecosystems is hugely needed. Research on what role GMO’s should sensibly play in such agro-ecosystems is right up your alley.

        So there is but a small wish-list.

        I know, it’s not easy to accomplish.

        But we can do it!

    • Genetic engineering is just a tool; so is a hammer. A hammer can be used to build a house or bludgeon someone to death.
      Are you in favor of banning all blunt objects?

      Enough with the straw-man arguments, shenendoah, I have never heard ANYONE say that …there will be no problem at all with any GMO…”. Save the straw for cleaning up your own horse-manure.

      • Well I HAVE many times, in slight variation.”GMO’s are no more problematic than cross breeding, in fact less.” blah blah blah. It is such a scientific disgrace that so-called “scientists” say such blather–you all should be ashamed of yourselves. But that requires more than you’ve got.

        • The following claims are distinct from eachother:-
          1. GMO’s are no more problematic than cross breeding, in fact less.
          2. There is and will be no problem at all with any GMO ever.

          2 implies 1, but 1 does not imply 2.

          Do you understand this basic reasoning?

  2. Wake up people. When giant companies are involved in our food and seed production. The only end is a bad one. They don’t care about our health they only care about money. So far in Canada there are nine foods that are GMO grown and for me that is way too much. I want the number to be 0. People are getting sick with allergies, cancers, deformities, etc. Check out India you will see what I mean.

    • Try using facts and proof. Cancer has been in humans for 1.7 million years now. Allergies were recorded throughout human history, deformities are related to DNA. All existed long before GMO’s were created, long before humans knew what DNA was. How about learning how things work and use facts not opinion and we’ll have a real discussion.

  3. “In June 2016, 110 Nobel Laureates publicly endorsed a statement affirming that GM foods are as safe or safer than non-GMO varieties.”

    131, actually.

Leave a Comment

News on human & agricultural genetics and biotechnology delivered to your inbox.
Optional. Mail on special occasions.

Send this to a friend