The ABCs of genetically modified crops

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In recent months, there have been a number of announcements related to genetically modified (GM) crops. It's these events that have inspired me to write about GM crops now.

Genetic modification is the introduction of new traits to an organism by making changes to its genetic makeup -- essentially by manipulating DNA.

Apples, potatoes, salmon, alfalfa -- these are the latest genetically modified crops to be approved for use and sale in Canada. And all of this without any solid science demonstrating that GM crops are safe for human consumption or that they increase yields. The federal government has been making these announcements without much warning and in the absence of labelling or public consultation.

But I am heartened by actions being taken in Canada and internationally to expand the debate about GM crops.

For example, on June 14 Sherbrooke NDP MP Pierre-Luc Dusseault introduced Bill C-291 in Parliament. This private member's bill, if passed, would require the mandatory labeling of all GM foods. This is a strong step in the right direction. Bill C-291 will receive second reading in the fall.

And then, just this month -- I stopped short and nodded once again on hearing that the European Union is close to banning the use of the ubiquitous pesticide glysophate, which is used in Roundup, produced by Monsanto. Two recent scientific reports have linked use of glysophate to cancer. For example, in 2015, the World Health Organization's research arm reported that glysophate likely causes cancer in humans. Banning glysophate would be a huge blow to GM crops everywhere, since the traits most often "modified" in GM crops are the increase in tolerance to herbicides, linking plant growth to its use.

It has been 20 years since the first genetically modified crop varieties were approved in Canada. One of these was canola. Today there is also some GM soy, corn and sugar beets grown in Canada.

Now, no matter which field you walk through, finding a canola crop that is not genetically modified is nearly impossible. You might say that GM canola seed spread through Canada like the wind, destroying international sales of the crop and dashing the hopes of organic and traditional farmers alike wanting to grow non-GM canola. Much like canola, alfalfa is pollinated by bees, and so cross-pollination and volunteer seed (seed that blows into a field without being planted by a farmer) are a huge concern.

Manitoba Organic Alliance president, Kate Storey, says:

"Canola used to be an economically viable crop for organics until GM canola was introduced. Within a few years the GM trait had cross‐contaminated the entire canola seed stock and organic growers lost their market. The loss of alfalfa from organic agriculture will be economically devastating."

This year we have seen a barrage of announcements approving GM crops. We are supposed to sit back and welcome apples that do not brown, potatoes that do not yellow. We are told that a new Atlantic GM salmon will soon be on the market, and that GM alfalfa will be approved throughout Canada. Apples will be the first GM fruit to be grown in Canada, and salmon the first GM food animal to be raised. And, if the use of GM alfalfa continues to spread throughout Canada, contamination of GM alfalfa into organic crops will rival the devastation of markets created by GM canola.

Even if federal legislation calling for mandatory labelling of GM foods is passed, try tracking GM alfalfa. Dairy cows, beef cows, chickens, pigs -- you name it -- all eat alfalfa. And we eat them. So while Bill C-291 is a good step, much more action is needed.

Canada needs to have much wider debate and public consultation on the use of GM crops and organisms. While some would have us believe that GM crops are here to stay and that most countries allow GM crops, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, only 10 countries around the world are responsible for producing 90 per cent of GM crops. The U.S. was the first to adopt GM crops and is still the largest cultivator at over 40 per cent of global GM crops.

Canadians producers and consumers have fought hard over the years to prevent the introduction of a number of GM crops and organisms, including GM wheat, bovine growth hormone, and yes, even GM alfalfa. But, constant vigilance is required as new requests for approval by corporate giants seem to resurface again and again. Just five international firms -- Monsanto, Dupont, Syngenta, Bayer and Dow -- control 98 per cent of biotech crops.

GM crops are not less expensive for farmers, they have not been proven to produce better yields, and they have not been proven to be safe for human health or the environment.

Most GM crops have been manipulated so that they are herbicide-tolerant. In many cases, the GM plantings need the herbicide in order to grow. This is the case for GM canola, sugar beets, and the case for alfalfa. And as we know, herbicide tolerance is also breeding herbicide-resistant plants -- a topic for another column.

For all of these reasons, there are several major campaigns focused on genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

One of these is the campaign to prevent the further introduction of GM alfalfa. More than 15 agricultural organizations have signed letters to federal ministers hoping to stop the use of GM alfalfa in Canada.

Another is to support the introduction of Bill C-291, the private member's bill that would make labelling of GMOs mandatory, whether they are grown in Canada or imported. This is the latest attempt to get Parliament to pass legislation which, according to public opinion, 90 per cent of Canadians want to see implemented.

Yet another campaign gaining momentum is the call for a public inquiry on the use of GMOs in Canada. This campaign is being led by several groups belonging to the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network. CBAN has recently published several excellent reports on GMOs detailing their impact on farmers, the environment, global food security and more. Each of the six is definitely worth the read.

Whether in Canada or internationally, there is a movement building that calls into question the use of GM crops, glysophate, and a model of agriculture that disregards the consumer and the environment.

If you have never looked into this issue to determine where you stand on it, I suggest that now would be high time!

Lois Ross is a communications specialist, writer, and editor, living in Ottawa. Her monthly column "At the farm gate" discusses issues that are key to food production here in Canada as well as internationally.

Photo: Canola field. Credit: Julie Falk/flickr

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