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
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
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
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, firstname.lastname@example.org
. The author is a columnist, transportation consultant and
third-generation farmer in Truax, Saskatchewan.