What does the future of genetic engineering have in store for consumers? It’s been 15 years since the first genetically engineered crop, a herbicide-tolerant canola, was approved in Canada.
Since then, genetically engineered (GE, also called genetically modified or GM) corn, canola, and soy ingredients—and now some GE sugar—have proliferated in processed, packaged foods across North America.
This year, however, for the first time since Canadians refused to allow GE potatoes and GE wheat onto the market in 1999 and 2004 respectively, we are seeing a push to introduce new GE foods such as apples, salmon,
In this first of a two-part look into the current state of genetically engineered consumer products in Canada, we take a look at some of the most immediate threats to the future of food in our country.
Is organic threatened by GE?
Genetically engineered foods are still hidden from us on grocery store shelves because, under industry pressure, successive governments have refused to establish mandatory labelling.
However, over the past 10 years organic foods have become more prominent and are a popular way to avoid genetic engineering. The rules of organic farming prohibit the use of genetic engineering, and a new national organic standard makes certified organic products more recognizable.
Organic farmers do not plant GE seeds and do not feed GE grains to their animals, but this also means that the prevalence of genetically engineered crops in our environment is a huge challenge to those farmers. In fact, the future of organic food is under direct threat from genetic engineering, in particular from Monsanto’s GE alfalfa.
GE alfalfa poses threat
Very few of us think about alfalfa or know anything about it, but this humble and tiny seed is critical to organic farming across Canada and the US. Even if we don’t eat alfalfa sprouts in our salads or sandwiches, we could still be eating alfalfa all the time.
This is because bees make alfalfa honey, dairy cows and livestock eat high-protein alfalfa hay, and farmers use alfalfa in rotation with grain crops to help build soil nutrition. Many different types of farmers, both organic and conventional, use alfalfa, so the introduction of GE alfalfa could have a wide-ranging impact on our entire food and farming system.
GE can contaminate organic crops
The threat of contamination from GE alfalfa is very real. In fact, all of our experience with GE crops so far tells us that this contamination is inevitable. This is especially true with alfalfa, because it is a perennial crop that is pollinated by bees and has seeds that can remain dormant for years before growing back.
This is why the fight over GE alfalfa has been raging, particularly in the US where organic farmers have been able to use the courts to challenge Monsanto, the largest seed and biotech company in the world.
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has never conducted an environmental assessment of any GE crop but has now been forced by the courts to do this for both Monsanto’s GE alfalfa and their GE sugar beets. In late January the USDA finished an “Environmental Impact Statement” for alfalfa and decided to allow plantings.
Organic farmers challenge Monsanto
Meanwhile, here in Canada conventional and organic growers have been working hard to convince provincial and federal governments to stop GE alfalfa.
Our government approved Monsanto’s GE alfalfa for growing and eating in 2005, but it is not yet legal for Monsanto to sell the GE seeds. All of this is shaping up into a showdown between Monsanto and organic farmers.
In a parallel case to GE alfalfa, organic farmers in the US also successfully challenged plantings of GE sugar beet (white sugar beet for sugar processing). In 2010 a US court ruled that the beets were illegal to plant or sell until the USDA completed a full environmental assessment, and in November the judge ordered any seedlings planted in September in Oregon and Arizona be uprooted
All of Canada’s sugar beet seeds, planted in Alberta and Southern Ontario, actually come from the Willamette Valley in Oregon, so if GE sugar beets cannot be planted in the US, there may be no GE sugar beet seed for Canada in the future.
Are apples next?
Apples are one of nature’s most perfect foods, and yet a BC biotechnology company has decided that they are not good enough. Okanagan Specialty Fruits has asked the US government to approve a genetically engineered “non-browning” apple.
The company says their GE apple “will provide a more enjoyable eating experience” because the apple will be more attractive to consumers. But what is the real purpose of the apple?
It is easy to just add lemon juice to stop a cut apple from browning, unless you are a big company that bags and serves cut apples as fast food. Food processing companies and factory farms are constantly looking for ways to make nature’s foods conform to large, long-distance, industrial processes.
What’s good for factory farms and industrial agriculture is not necessarily good for organic farmers—and for those of us who are concerned about making healthy food choices.
As GE critics have always predicted, weeds have become tolerant to the main herbicides used with GE crops. These herbicide-tolerant weeds are leading to increased pesticide use, sometimes with older, more toxic chemicals.
The weed called Palmer amaranth or pigweed is particularly troublesome in the US, and Monsanto is now giving farmers rebates so they can buy herbicides from other companies to kill the weeds.
“The biotech industry is taking us into a more pesticide-dependent agriculture when they’ve always promised, and we need to be going in, the opposite direction,” said Bill Freese at the Center for Food Safety in Washington, DC.
Genetic engineering is beginning to have proven negative impacts on the overall state of farming in North America. Widespread GE canola contamination has eliminated organic canola in Canada except in some very geographically isolated places such as Prince Edward Island.
As well, in late 2009 Canadian flax exports were found contaminated with illegal GE flax. In 2001 flax farmers predicted that GE flax would ruin their European market, and they successfully removed GE flax from the market. However, 10 years later contamination from this very GE crop shut down their exports.
GE sustainable—and organic?
Despite the role of genetic engineering in chemical agriculture—and the negative fallout affecting the organic farming community—the biotechnology industry has begun a campaign to convince consumers that GE crops can play a role in sustainable agriculture.
As the consumer demand for local and more ecologically produced foods gets stronger and becomes a competing force to genetic engineering, the biotechnology industry is arguing that GE should be accepted as part of environmentally friendly farming practice.
Ultimately, the industry wants to see GE seeds and animals as part of organic farming. The industry already tried and failed in 1998 to have genetic engineering accepted in US organic rules, but was defeated by an unprecedented response from a quarter of a million consumers to the US government.
Farmers and food first!
GE flax and canola contamination and pesticide-tolerant weeds that require increasingly toxic herbicides shows how destructive genetic engineering can be for farmers and why our government needs to consider the voice of farmers and consumers before approving new GE foods.
Last year, for the first time, farmers had a voice in the House of Commons on genetic engineering, and our members of Parliament debated some of the real issues. This debate was thanks to Bill C-474, which would have required “an analysis of potential harm to export markets be conducted before the sale of any new genetically engineered seed is permitted.”
This one-line private members’ bill challenged the government to simply study the possible harm that some GE crops could cause to the very people they are supposed to benefit: farmers. It also challenged Monsanto to defend its practice of trying to introduce GE crops, such as GE wheat, that are rejected in our export markets.
The debate over Bill C-474 became so controversial that the Liberals and Conservatives actually shut down parliamentary hearings before some of Canada’s major farm leaders could be heard.
However, with GE apples, fish, and pigs on the horizon, the debate is only getting more intense. This situation continues to create conflict and is leading to a major showdown between genetic engineering on the one hand and consumers and farmers on the other.
In the second part of this two-part series, we’ll look at some new threats, such as the “Enviropig” developed at the University of Guelph as well as the “AquAdvantage” salmon under review as a food by the US Food and Drug Administration.
GE crops tied to chemical farming
The story of genetic engineering is the story of industrial food and chemical farming. Monsanto’s alfalfa is engineered to be tolerant to the company’s brand-name herbicide called Roundup. It was designed so that the crop plants will survive repeated herbicide sprayings, even when the plants are very young.
The herbicide-tolerant technology is convenient for farmers who use chemicals to grow soy, corn, and canola, and accounts for 88 percent of all the GE crops planted in the world.
Genetically engineered crops have always been tied to chemical farming. The link between GE crops and increased pesticide use is clearer than ever now that herbicide-tolerant weeds are emerging across the US, and even in Ontario.
GE sugar in our food?
In 2008 Canadian sugar company Lantic removed a non-GE pledge from its website, and the company began processing GE sugar beets at its plant in Taber, Alberta.
Lantic is the only Canadian company that processes GE sugar beets, but it supplies sugar to many other food companies. However, Cadbury’s has already told Canadian customers that it will not use GE sugar.