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Canada's Canola Crisis

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The industry strategy agreed upon years ago was to contaminate the food system with genetically engineered plants as rapidly and stealthily as possible

The industry strategy agreed upon years ago was to contaminate the food system with genetically engineered plants as rapidly and stealthily as possible. To pull this off required a government “no-labelling” industry. That is what they got.

Genetically engineered canola is on the way to becoming an agricultural plague and a dietary question mark. Not only is it available in every grocery store in Canada, its genetically engineered seeds and plants are turning up everywhere–in towns, fields and roadsides in the canola-growing areas of Canada.

It wasn’t always like this. Forty years ago, the oilseed rape plant was a specialty crop that grew well on the prairies. Its oil was valued as an industrial lubricant but there was a limited market for it.

In other parts of the world, particularly in China and East Asia, rape seed had been used sparingly as a condiment and a cooking oil for centuries. In North America, it was not considered edible due to both the high level of glucosinolates left in the meal after the oil was processed out and the high levels of eurucic acid it contained.

Glucosinolates are what provide the “hot” component in mustards and garlic, while eurucic acid is what gives rapeseed oil the ability to withstand high temperatures (thus its value as an industrial lubricant). However, the glucosinolates act as a growth inhibitor when the meal is used in high percentages in animal feeds. Eurucic acid causes “fatty hearts” in a wide variety of animals, including humans.

Rapeseed is a member of the highly diversified brassica family, along with the mustards, brussels sprouts, cabbage and turnips. Public sector scientists and plant breeders thought they might be able to breed out the “harmful” components of rape through the slow process of traditional selection breeding. They succeeded and rapeseed was transformed.

The name “canola” was given to the new “double-low” rapeseed in 1974. In 1986, the trademark canola was legally amended so that it could be applied only to varieties of rapeseed oil that contained less than two per cent eurucic acid and meal containing less than 30 micromoles per gram of glucosinolates. In 1997, the legal definition of canola was amended again to half the acceptable levels of eurucic acid and glucosinolates in the seed.
Because canola is lowest in “bad” saturated fats of all edible oils and second highest in “good” mono-unsaturated fats after olive oil, it has been pushed by the Canola Council of Canada as the healthiest of edible oils worldwide. However, no one really knows enough about human metabolism and oil components, such as trans-fatty acids, to say what oil is actually “best,” particularly after they have been altered by hydrogenization and prolonged use in fast-food deep-fryers. These considerations have been overshadowed by the advent of genetically engineered canola, which first hit the market in 1995.

The Rape of Canola

Last year, over 80 percent of canola growers grew transgenic herbicide-tolerant varieties on approximately 55 percent of the 12 million acres of canola grown in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and the British Columbia Peace River area.

Unlike the original development of canola, transgenic, herbicide-tolerant canolas (Roundup Ready, Liberty Link) have been created by the violent insertion of alien genetic constructs into the relatively stable genomes of the conventional canola varieties. The genetic traits that have been inserted into the plants are owned and patented by transnational corporations. Whether the oil from these transgenic plants is good or bad for human health is unknown.

Because the regulatory regimen for genetically engineered foods has been designed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to assist in getting new products to market as quickly as possible, the corporations seeking approval of “plants with novel traits” only have to show (not prove) that their engineered plants are “substantially equivalent” to the non-engineered varieties.

Monsanto Deception

In April, Monsanto voluntarily recalled its Quest brand of canola seed after discovering it contained trace amounts of an alternate version of the Roundup Ready trait that was not registered for use in canola. A year ago, Monsanto discovered two pieces of unidentified and unapproved genetic material in its Roundup Ready soybeans that had already been grown commercially for several years. Why have we been kept in the dark about all this? Why is genetically engineered food not labelled?

Quite simply, the industry and its government boosters have not wanted us to know what they are doing to our food. Why not? Because they rightly fear public rejection of their patented and profitable food products.

Behind this is the industry strategy agreed upon years ago; that is, to contaminate the food system with genetically engineered plants as rapidly and stealthily as possible. To pull this off required a government “no labelling” policy. That is what they got. Their objective: to pollute the food system to the point where, when we realized what was going on, they could simply say, “Too late folks, you’ll just have to learn to live with it.”

It is true that the industry has achieved an alarming degree of pollution of our food system, but it is not too late to put an end to any further pollution. Mother nature can restore her own dynamic equilibrium. We must demand labelling of all foods produced through biotechnology and make a public issue (at the check-out stand if nowhere else) of our refusal to purchase canola products and all other GE-foods. With our food money, we must support locally grown, certified organic foods which explicitly exclude genetic engineering.

Call for all-party support of Bill C-287, a private member’s bill sponsored by Member of Parliament Charles Caccia that would legislate mandatory labelling of all GE foods. Phone or fax your own MP. This Bill will come up for a vote to be referred, or not, to the Standing Committee on Health in September.

For the full story of the transformation of rapeseed into canola and the beginnings of its genetically engineered reconstruction, see Brewster Kneen, The Rape of Canola, NC Press, 1992. Available from The Ram’s Horn, S6, C27, RR1, Sorrento, BC V0E 2W0, $15 postpaid.

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