Letter from Saskatchewan
The war about drugs: Coming to a corn patch near you

By Paul Beingessner

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Saskatchewan farmer Paul Beingessner has missed only a handful of deadlines in writing a weekly column during the past eight years. He covers Canadian agriculture from a High Plains perspective. His straight-talk style informs readers about corporate influence in national and international agriculture, national ag politics on both sides of the border, and why some farmers do the things they do. Click here for more information about Paul.

TRUAX, Saskatchewan, Canada, March 4, 2004: The results of a recent study carried out in the U.S. will come as no surprise to Canadian canola growers. The study looked at three main food crops - corn, soybeans and canola – and concluded that more than two-thirds of the seed samples from the 36 conventional varieties that were tested contained genetically engineered strands of DNA. This is consistent with research done at the University of Manitoba that found stray DNA from genetically modified (GM) canola varieties in many of the foundation seedstocks of conventional canola.

It is worth noting too, that the American experiments could not test for many of the genetically engineered DNA sequences found in GM crops because the sequences are trade secrets.

A spokesperson for the Biotechnology Industry Association in the U.S. claimed this finding was neither surprising nor troublesome. The industry believes there are no significant issues around food safety, since the government does an adequate job of protecting consumers. Contamination is inevitable, it says, and the real concern should be in getting the world to adopt reasonable standards for contamination with GM seeds.

It is interesting that, though GM crops have only been grown extensively in North America for about eight years, contamination of the seed supply of conventional crops in ubiquitous. The industry is correct in assuming that systems currently in place to ensure seed purity cannot prevent such contamination.

Avid proponents of GM crops, like the companies that produce them, aren't too concerned about this. Some farmers take a similar point of view. And, though consumers respond to surveys by saying they want to know if their foods contain GM materials, they don't, at least in North America, get too worked up about the answer.

All this could soon change. The reason is crops currently used universally for food, crops like corn and soy, are also being engineered for non-food purposes. Varieties of these crops are being developed to produce everything from pharmaceuticals to plastics.

Many Canadian and American consumers are aware they are eating GM foods with every bite of their cornflakes and every swipe of margarine on their toast. Since they don't find their friends and neighbours dropping like flies, they have come to believe this is relatively safe. It might be a different story, however, if they thought they could be chowing down on a crop grown for its pharmaceutical properties.

The French company, Meristem Therapeutics, found out last summer, the concerns such an issue might raise. Meristem sought permission to grow a plot of corn in Colorado that produces lipase, an enzyme used in the treatment of cystic fibrosis patients. Concerns were raised about the wisdom of growing a crop like this in an area where corn is grown for food.

In cases like this, companies like to fall back on the assurance that regulations governing the isolation of these crops are adequate to protect public safety. The finding that GM material has spread rapidly through conventional varieties makes these assurances look a bit deficient. Contamination is an ever-present possibility, whether through pollen flow or human error. Corn growers in the U.S. are still recovering from the damage they suffered when Starlink corn, a GM variety intended only for animal feed made its way to Japan in shipments destined for human consumption.

The consumer backlash that would occur if food crops became contaminated with pharmaceuticals could make the Starlink scandal look like a walk in the park. The GM industry says that keeping GM DNA out of conventional crops cannot be done with current systems. The suggested solution is to adopt tolerances that match the degree of contamination. At recent international discussions on the issue, the U.S. suggested a 5% tolerance would be reasonable. The tolerance in food crops for materials from GM pharmaceutical crops would have to infinitely smaller than that. Right now, there is no way this can be achieved if pharmaceutical crops are grown with standard isolation and production techniques.

Production of these potentially useful medicines should be done only in non-food crops and under the strictest conditions. The creators of these technologies have failed to show they can control their unintentional spread. Perhaps this is where they should focus their attention for a while.

© Paul Beingessner, beingessner@sasktel.net . The author is a columnist, transportation consultant and third-generation farmer in Truax, Saskatchewan.