Genetically Engineered Food
What does Genetically Engineered Mean?
Researchers use recombinant-DNA technology to enable the insertion of a number of genes into crops for human and animal consumption. These genes convey traits, such as tolerance to a herbicide or an insect pest. The process involves isolating the desired gene from its original organism and either blasting it into the host species using a gene gun or utilizing a viral vector to cross over the species barrier. Both of these methods are unable to control the exact location of where in the genome the gene will manifest itself, thus making the whole process random and unpredictable. These combinations of genes could never be accomplished through traditional plant breeding.
Currently, we as North American consumers, are subject to the consumption of genetically engineered (GE), also known as Genetically Modified (GM or GMOrganisms), products in many processed foods containing GE corn, soy, potatoes, canola and cotton. The predominant traits that these crops possess are either herbicide tolerance, mainly glyphosate, or insect tolerance, created by inserting the toxin from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). There are numerous other products looming on the horizon, waiting for approval.
Pesticide Use (The Promises and The Realities)
When GE crops were first introduced, they came with promises of reducing the use of pesticides on farmland. This has been the main claim of the biotechnology industry as to why GE crops could be environmentally beneficial. The two herbicides that are associated with herbicide tolerant (HT) crops are glyphosate, coined Roundup by Monsanto, and glufosinate, marketed as Liberty Link by Aventis. The former being grown on a much larger scale. Dr. Benbrook, an independent analyst, affirms that US government data confirms the belief that HT crops have increased the amount of herbicide applied (1).
The claim the HT crops would lead to a decrease in pesticide use was based on the fact that a HT leads to flexibility in the time that the chemical can be applied, thus leading to only a single application. In the field, however, the ideal time for a single application would be later in the season after the majority of weeds were established, leading to a decrease in yield. So in reality, the majority of farmers are performing multiple applications, and increasing their per acre application when compared to their conventional neighbours (2).
Not only are the applications of glyphosate and glufosinate increasing, but more and more farmers are turning to other more persistent chemicals. Farmers apply a persistent chemical before crop emergence to have a lasting herbicide effect for the emerging plant (3).
Glyphosate - Although marketed as a benign chemical, has been shown to be the third most frequent cause of illness amongst agricultural workers (4). It also has toxic effects on beneficial organisms, such as nitrogen-fixing bacteria (4).
Glufosinate - Is classified as a persistent and mobile chemical by the US Enivronmental Protection Agency (5).
Resistance and Superweeds
As with most pesticide products, glyphosate is beginning to deal with problems of resistance in the weeds that it is meant to control. Resistance is more likely to occur when a chemical is used too frequently, and as we have seen HT crops receive a dosing of glyphosate in a rotation, leading to selection pressures that enable resistance. In turn, farmers use higher application rates to controlling the growing resistance, perpetuating the problem even further (1).
A growing concern with GE crops is the emergence of superweeds, or volunteers. These are HT plants that are left over from previous crops. This is not merely an issue from season to season. Seeds can lay dormant in the soil for several years before germinating, thus the problem of superweeds is only going to escalate with continued use of GE seed. In order to control superweeds, farmers are turning to much more toxic and persistent herbicides such as paraquat or 2,4-D. Some superweed have achieved multiple resistance, to not only glyphosate but other pesticides such as glufosinate and imidazolines (6).
Contamination of GE seed and products into non-GE supplies occurs at the level of seed production, crop production and food processing. Pollen can be moved by wind, insects and other wildlife, water and machinery. Industry has set separation distances between conventional and GE crops, yet these distances have been shown to be inadequate in protecting farmers against contamination.
Organic farmers are in a particularly difficult situation, as their market states that they must ensure that they are free from contamination of GE products. It has become impossible for organic growers in the prairies to do this for canola, a crop that was an important element in their rotation prior to the release of RR canola, and subsequently, the majority of farmers have opted not to grow the crop. In Saskatchewan the effect has been most drastic where every organic farmer systematically lost their organic status for canola.
When a GE variety is introduced in a region, it makes it extremely difficult to grow a certified organic crop of the same species because of seed stock contamination, seed movement and pollen drift. Canola is Saskatchewan example; elsewhere it is corn and soybeans.
Presentation by Saskatchewan Organic Directorate to the Canadian House of Commons (7).
Affects on Yields
GE crops were introduced with the promise of high-yields. In fact many herbicide-tolerant (HT) and Bt crops have produced lower yields than their conventional counterparts. A study conducted at the University of Saskatchewan found that Roundup Ready (RR) canola yielded 7.5 percent less than conventional canola (8). Studies conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture have shown that only one GE crop, Bt corn, has experienced increased yields and not at a rate high enough to combat the extra production costs (9,10)
Trade and Economic Effects
The European Union has listened to the citizens of its 15 member countries and their disapproval and wariness over the issue of GE products, and has not allowed GE laden foods to enter the marketplace. As Canada is a major exported of goods to the EU, the approval of GE crops has had a drastic effect on the makeup of our export markets.
This is most apparent in the case of canola in Canada. With the introduction of glyphosate resistant canola, the markets to Europe closed and subsequently, the market is losing 300 million dollars in trade yearly, totalling over a billion dollars in canola sales to Europe since 1997. Markets in Japan and China have also severely declined (11).
Farmers are really starting to question the ability of products that seem to be shutting them out of markets worldwide
Cory Ollikka, president of National Farmers Union of Canada (12)
Then why do Farmers choose GE?
With the list of problem and broken promises concerning GE mounting why would a farmer choose to plant GE seed? Many farmers feel that they have no other choice. They cite fears of contamination, lack of choice of conventional seed, and the difficulty in accessing non-GE markets.
If a farmer does choose to plant conventional seed, there are growing concerns that contamination of their fields with GE seed, could lead to extensive and costly court battles. Percy Schmeiser, a farmer from Saskatchewan was found guilty patent infringement for growing RR canola without a licence even though the only source of the seed could be from contamination as he did not plant the GE crop. Thus far, the ordeal has cost him $600,000 (12). He takes his case to the Supreme Court in January of 2004.
A traditional farming practice is saving seed, that is, storing a share of the years harvest and planting its seed the following season. However, when a farmer uses GE seed, a contract is drawn between the seed company, such as Monsanto or Aventis, among which one of the terms of the agreement is that the is farmer forbidden to save seed. This not only restricting, but costly, as new seed must be purchased each rotation.
Regulations and Registration
In Canada, genetically engineered products are regulated by Health Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), and Environment Canada. Health Canada is responsible for ensuring food safety of GE products, and the CFIA evaluates the environmental safety. These agencies, responsible for ensuring the safety of food products, are also in charge of the promotion of the technology to Canadians, creating a conflict of interest that should cause alarm (13,14).
An application for a new GE product must include the following:
- The efficacy of the product - does it do what they claim?
- Environmental safety
- Health safety
The approval process is completed by evaluating the data supplied by the corporation developing the new product. When testing is conducted at government research facilities it is funded through the Matched Investment Initiative (MII) with biotechnology firms. This makes them stakeholders in the research and yet they are dependant on a positive outcome from test results. Registration and field trails are often conduct in secret, as we have seen with GE wheat trials.
The registration program is lacking in several key areas:
- It does not assess farmers desire for the product
- Consumer opinion is not consulted
- The economic impacts are not evaluated
- No long-term tests are conducted (making the toxicity studies needed for approval insufficient)
- Labelling of products is not mandatory
Currently, there are no federal laws concerning the labelling of GE products in processed foods, leaving the consumer without the chance to choose GE free products or not.
How to Get Involved in the Issue
- Buy Organic: As always, GE free;
- Write a letter to your MP (no postage necessary), to the Minister of Agriculture, Minister of Health, and to the Prime Minister demanding mandatory GE labeling, more GE testing and regulation; and
- Dont invest in biotechnology. If you have ethical investments, ask your financial planner if these include biotech shares, and if so, opt out.
Other Sources of Information
- Find out more about Sierra Club Canadas Safe Food and Sustainable Agriculture Campaign at www.sierraclub.ca/national
- The Polaris Institute (www.polarisinstitute.org) has published several publications on the regulation of GE in Canada, Regulating Genetic Engineering for Profit, and the biotech corporations, Galloping Gene Giants.
- Vandana Shiva has published several books on the topics of biotechnology, sustainable agriculture and trade, including: Biopracy: the plunder of nature and knowledge and Tomorrows Biodiversity. Visit the institute Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology founded by Shiva at www.vshiva.net.
- Read The Rams Horn (www.ramshorn.bc.ca), a monthly journal of food system analysis or their other publications available online.
- The Royal Society of Canada has published a report recommending major restructuring of the Canadian GE regulation system. This 245 page document can be found at www.rsc.ca.
Related SCC Fact Sheets
Regulation of Genetically Engineered Foods - A Novel Idea
Genetically Engineered Wheat Fact Sheet
(1) Benbrook C. Do GM Crops mean less pesticide use? Pesticide Outlook. October 2001. (http://www.rsc.org/Publishing/Journals/PO/index.asp)
(2) Owen MDK. North American developments in herbicide tolerant crops. British Crop Protection Conference, Brighton, England. 1997. (www.weeds.iastate.edu/weednews/Brighton.htm.)
(3) Mississippi State University Extension Service Agronomy Notes. April 2002
(4) Nottingham S. Genescapes: The Ecology of Genetic Engineering. Zed Books. 2002.
(5) Pesticide News. No 42. December 1998.
(6) Gene stacking in herbicide tolerant oilseed rape: lessons from the North American experience. English Nature Research Reports. No. 443. January 2002.
(7) Saskatchewan Organic Directorate, presentation to the Canadian House of Commons, standing committee on agriculture and agri-food. 29 January 2002.
(8) Fulton M and Keyowski L. The producer benefits of herbicide-resistant canola. AgBioForum 2(2). 1999. (www.agbioforum.missouri.edu.)
(9) Benbrook C. When does it pay to plant Bt corn? Farm-level economics of Bt corn 1996-2001. www.iatp.org
(10) USDA Economic Research Service. The Performance of Field-Released Transgenic Crops.
(11) Clarke T, and Inouye B. Galloping Gene Giants: How big corporations are re-organizing their push for a biotech future and what can be done to challenge this agenda. Polaris Institute. February 2002.
(12) Soil Association. Seeds of Doubt North American farmers experiences of GM crops. 2002
(13) Freeze, C. 2002. Ottawa promoting safety of GMOs. Globe and Mail. p.A9. 5 February 2002.
(14) RSC (Royal Society of Canada). 2001. Final Report of the Panel on the Future of Food