SmartStax Corn

Was it wise to rubber-stamp it?

SmartStax Corn

This fall Canadians may well be eating a corn called “SmartStax” that has not one, not two, but eight genetically modified (GM) traits.

SmartStax’s approval is highly controversial for a few reasons—the main one being that Health Canada did not assess SmartStax corn for human health safety.

GM is everywhere and nowhere

At present Canadian farmers grow only four genetically modified crops. Three of these—corn, canola, and soy—are widely grown. In addition, as of last year, a small number of Ontario and Alberta farmers now grow GM sugar beet for sugar processing (that’s white sugar beet; not the red table beets you may cook in your kitchen).

Despite the fact that there are few GM crops being grown today, many of us have probably consumed foods with some GM ingredients. That’s because over half of Canada’s corn and soy is genetically modified, as is almost all of our canola. We eat all three as processed food ingredients such as corn starch, soy lethicin (found in chocolate bars, for example), and canola oil.

These three major crops are also important for feeding livestock, and a lot of corn feeds dairy cows. As it happens, corn, canola, and soy are also the so-called first generation of biofuel crops that may increasingly fuel our cars.

Going one step further, two of the most powerful agrochemical companies, Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences, have now developed a new GM corn they call SmartStax. Unlike the GM varieties currently sold on market shelves, it has eight GM traits “stacked” together in the one seed. Once it’s planted, much of it will inevitably end up in packaged foods as well as in animal feed and as feedstock for ethanol.

Monsanto is everywhere

The common feature of all four GM crops grown in Canada is the multinational biotech and seed company Monsanto. While there are other companies selling GM seeds, Monsanto—the largest seed company in the world—owns approximately 86 percent of all the GM seeds sown across the world.

But it’s not just the GM market that Monsanto dominates. According to ETC Group, an Ottawa-based international organization dedicated to the conservation and sustainable advancement of cultural and ecological diversity and human rights, Monsanto owns 23 percent of the global proprietary (patented) seed market and is constantly expanding, buying up all kinds of seed companies, not just those that produce GM seeds.

Originally a chemical company, Monsanto also still sells the world’s biggest selling herbicide, Roundup. In fact, Monsanto is the fifth-largest pesticide company in the world today. Dow AgroSciences, Monsanto’s partner in producing SmartStax corn, is the fourth-largest, according to the ETC Group.

Crossing the species barrier

What does genetic modification really mean? Also called genetic engineering, the process allows scientists to isolate genes—the basic units in the cells of every organism that can determine its characteristics or traits—and transfer them from one species into another, unrelated species.

While it’s true that we have been moving genes around since we began farming, we always did this through traditional breeding methods that rely on, and are constrained by, the reproductive systems of plants and animals themselves.

Never before have we been able to directly move genes from one species to another or from one kingdom (for example, fish) to another (for example, plants). Scientists refer to the obstacles that keep species in nature from successfully reproducing with one another as the species barrier. We have now crossed it.

By inserting new genes into a plant or shuffling existing genes around, scientists can make plants express new traits. For example, particular genes from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which is toxic to a class of insects, are spliced into corn to create “Bt corn.” With the new Bt gene, the corn expresses the Bt toxin, which is its new trait for insect resistance—the pests who nibble the corn will die.

This is actually one of the only two major GM traits currently on the market. Around 82 percent of all GM crops sold in the world are herbicide tolerant and most of the rest are insect resistant. This means that, so far, corporations have only commercialized crops that either survive intensive herbicide sprayings or kill insects. There are two exceptions, virus-resistant papaya and squash, but these are not widely grown.

When Monsanto and Dow developed SmartStax, each company contributed four patented GM traits. The resulting corn has six different insect-resistant (Bt) traits and two herbicide-tolerant traits. SmartStax is the most extreme example so far of a “stacked” GM product. This stacking is created by cross-breeding different GM corn plants that contain different GM traits. Is stacking genes as simple as it sounds?

Not quite Lego

Genes are often referred to as the “building blocks of life.” While this may be an appropriate metaphor, critical scientists caution that we should not take this image too literally by viewing genes as Lego blocks.

Genes interact with other genes and many shifting factors, including the external environment. That’s why, although genetic engineering can produce astonishing results, it can also produce unexpected effects that can translate into new risks.

It is because of such possibilities that an international science debate is currently raging over the fundamental questions of how we should view genetic modification. This debate is highly political, as its outcome influences how governments regulate for safety and consequently, how quickly GM foods get to market. Stacking genes focuses new attention on this debate.

Canada’s “novel” Lego blocks

Representing one extreme of the international debate, Canada essentially regulates GM foods as if genes were, in fact, Lego blocks.

Health Canada does not actually even regulate genetic engineering but regulates what the government calls “novel foods” and “plants with novel traits.” This category is unique to Canada and includes GM organisms but also organisms created through traditional breeding and other methods. This happens because the government looks for “novel traits” in the final product rather than paying attention to the process that created the new food or crop.

The government created the category of “novel foods” in order to deal with GM foods without actually naming the technology and drawing undue attention to it. Rather than viewing the process of genetic engineering as inherently risky, our government instead focuses on the traits in the end product.

This means that Health Canada does not automatically view every GM food as a novel food. A GM food is only identified as a novel food if Health Canada agrees it as having “novel traits.” If not, government regulations are not triggered and no safety assessment is needed. This is what happened to SmartStax.

But do foods from stacked trait products such as SmartStax warrant some attention? Should they have their own risk assessment?

No safety assessment for SmartStax

In the words of the Minister of Health, “Health Canada’s mandate is to ensure that all novel foods, including those derived from biotechnology, are safe prior to entering the Canadian food supply.”

Indeed, Health Canada is following its own regulations. When the department first came across the eight novel traits in earlier crops, it evaluated sets of data from Monsanto and Dow to approve their safety for human consumption.

According to the regulations, because the traits in SmartStax have previously been assessed, they are no longer “novel.” Even though the eight GM traits have been combined together for the first time, because they are not novel traits anymore, SmartStax is not a novel food, and does not need to be tested for safety.

Health Canada did not even officially rubber-stamp the approval of SmartStax. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency alone authorized the commercialization of the corn. Health Canada was involved in the decision only in that it ignored the product and thus gave it a de facto or invisible rubber stamp. But the question remains: is this adequate for such a complex GM food?

Risky interpretations

The fact that Health Canada does not even classify SmartStax as a novel food actually contradicts the UN Codex food safety guidelines that Canada helped negotiate.

Although Health Canada disputes this interpretation, according to the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network and Consumers International, a group that participated in the UN negotiations, the Codex guideline states that stacking traits can result in unintended effects and should therefore lead to safety assessments.

Michael Hansen, a leading global expert on the potential health risks of GM food and senior scientist with Consumers Union in the US, says, “Combining many GM traits together can give rise to unintended effects which could adversely affect health, such as creating new allergies or toxins or exacerbating existing allergies.”

The insecticidal toxins in Bt crops actually show similarities to proteins that cause food allergies. In 2000 and 2001 a Bt corn known as StarLink was approved in the US for animal feed but not for human consumption because of concerns that it could cause food allergies.

As Bill Freese from the Center for Food Safety in the US reminds us, when StarLink accidentally contaminated the US food supply, hundreds of people reported allergic reactions, and the subsequent investigation could not determine the cause. SmartStax, which contains not one but six of the insecticidal toxins, significantly increases human exposure to substances that may well be allergenic.

Leave it to Monsanto

According to their current method, however, Health Canada would not know about potentially hazardous changes in a GM food unless the companies profiting from GM tell them.

An email from Health Canada media relations to journalists, sent when SmartStax’s untested release was first discovered, lays out their approach clearly, saying that the stacking of GM traits via breeding GM plants is permitted, “provided there is no change to the safety of the product. If there was a change, the company would have to provide the necessary information to Health Canada.”

No independent testing or transparency

Even if we accept Health Canada’s arguments that there is no need to assess the new eight-trait GM corn because the traits have already been evaluated as safe, the process for that initial safety assessment of GM traits is also highly controversial.

It’s controversial because Health Canada does not do any of its own testing, but merely evaluates the science provided to it by the companies requesting product approval. The minister says, “The Department rigorously assesses the safety of all biotechnology-derived foods – assesses, not tests.

These assessments may well be just fine; the reality, however, is that neither the public nor independent scientists have access to this data in order to check. The company-owned data that Health Canada evaluates is classified as “confidential business information,” so even if they wanted to, it is illegal for the department to show us this science.

As the Royal Society of Canada’s Expert Panel on the Future of Food concluded, “The lack of transparency in the current approval process, leading as it does to an inability to evaluate the scientific rigour of the assessment process, seriously compromises the confidence that society can place in the current regulatory framework used to assess potential risks to human, animal, and environmental safety posed by GMOs.”

Reform regulations

In 2001 the Royal Society of Canada, the country’s pre-eminent scientific body, was asked by the government to review Canada’s ability to regulate GM foods in the future. The society’s Expert Panel on the Future of Food Biotechnology concluded with 58 substantive recommendations for change. Unfortunately, with one or two small exceptions, none of these have been instituted.

Canada’s entire approach toward GM foods is one that assumes that there is nothing very new about this technology. If SmartStax remains authorized, it will be a constant, possibly dangerous reminder of the inability of our current regulatory system to deal with the complexity of GM foods.

As the panel concluded eight years ago, there is a need for the Canadian government to reform the entire regulatory system. This reform is now urgently needed as the complexity of GM foods increases and with it, the potential dangers.

Finishing with GM

Monsanto’s power and size might seem insurmountable, but the truth is that Canadians have already stopped three of the mega-corporation’s major GM products: bovine growth hormone (for milk production), GM potatoes, and GM wheat.

Dedicated resistance from both farmers and consumers needs to continue if we want to protect organic food, our environment, our health, and our ability to choose how our food is produced and what we feed our families.

If SmartStax corn is planted widely in Canada and the US this spring, it will quickly end up in the packaged foods we eat, the dairy and meat we might consume, and maybe even in our gas tanks if we buy ethanol fuel.

But this needn’t be the future that we accept. With increasing support for certified organic food and a strong food movement in Canada that is looking out for healthy food and farming, the prospects for a GM future look less secure.

GM terms

GMOs are genetically modified organisms.

This is the internationally used term to describe organisms created through the introduction, elimination, or rearrangement of specific genes or DNA sequences, using recombinant DNA techniques.

Genetic modification (GM) is also called genetic engineering (GE) and these terms can be used interchangeably.

Stacked-trait products are created by breeding GM plants together.

Avoiding GM foods

You can avoid GM foods when you:

  • eat certified organic food, because GM is prohibited in organic farming
  • check processed food ingredients to avoid corn, canola, and soy ingredients (check out the table on this page for a full list)
  • eat certified organic meat or 100 percent grass-fed meat, and choose organic eggs and dairy products

GM foods at the market

GM crops legally grown in Canada

Crop

Trait

Where on the Shelves

Corn insect resistant; herbicide tolerant corn flakes; corn chips; other processed corn products; cornstarch; corn syrup; corn oil, other corn ingredients in processed foods; sweeteners listed as glucose/fructose, a generic term for high-fructose corn syrup (check your beverages); eggs, milk, and meat
Canola herbicide tolerant canola oil; eggs, milk, and meat
Soy herbicide tolerant soy oil; soy protein; soy lecithin (a binding agent used in chocolate bars, for example); tofu; soy beverages; soy puddings; eggs, milk, and meat
Sugar beet herbicide tolerant sugar

GM foods grown and imported from the US

Food

Trait

Where on the Shelves

Cottonseed oil insect resistant cottonseed oil/vegetable oil in processed foods such as potato chips
Papaya virus tolerant papaya in fruit juices and other processed foods
Squash virus tolerant some zucchini; yellow crookneck and straightneck squash
Milk products growth hormone milk powder, frozen desserts with dairy; imported mixed drinks with milk ingredients

Monsanto’s “SmartStax”ing profits

There is no debate that genetic modification facilitates a new level of corporate control over our food. Corporations can patent gene sequences and thus actually own genes inside living organisms. With SmartStax, farmers are buying seeds with eight GM patented sequences. As the level of corporate control rises, so does the price.

Monsanto gets to launch a new product out of old traits and charge farmers up to 42 percent more. This is only the beginning, as Monsanto is already saying that they will add more genes and traits to SmartStax. No wonder Monsanto is calling this a “game-changing technology.”

It’s widely expected that SmartStax will soon dominate the corn seed market and that farmers who buy GM crops will have few single-trait GM seeds to choose from. In the US, where half of all GM crops are grown, 37 percent of the GM crops already had two or three traits in 2007. Monsanto and Dow themselves have announced that the launch of SmartStax will be the biggest ever commercial launch of a GM corn.

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