GMOs, A Global Debate: Canada Pushes for Flexibility
EDMONTON, Canada—The first genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were approved in Canada in the mid-1990s. Today, Canada is among the top five producers of GM crops around the globe.
GM foods in Canada are regulated under “novel foods,” a collective term given to foods that don’t have a history of safe use. The federal government has currently approved over 100 novel foods, a great majority of which are GM. However, many of the approved food products are currently not produced or available in the market in Canada.
According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), there were 11.6 million hectares (22.6 million acres) of GM crops grown in Canada in 2012.
The major GM crops produced in Canada include canola, corn, soy, and to a lesser extent, sugar beets.
Among these crops, canola is the most profitable for Canadian farmers, according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. A study by the Canola Council of Canada shows that canola crops contribute an annual $15.4 billion to the Canadian economy. Over 90 percent of canola crops in Canada have been genetically engineered.
Canada also imports GM varieties of cottonseed oil, papaya, and squash, among others.
There are currently no commercial animal biotechnology products allowed in Canada, although the University of Guelph in Ontario worked on a transgenic pig under a project called EnviroPigs. The project has been put on hold because of a lack of funding.
In Canada, GM foods do not require labels advising that the product contains GMOs, a point of contention for activists wanting to know if the food product is GM or a GMO byproduct.
Another current issue contested by activists is an application by a British Columbia-based firm seeking approval for a genetically engineered apple, which, if approved, would be the first GM fruit approved for cultivation in Canada (GM papaya is already approved in Canada, but is not grown locally.)
In 2011, the Canadian government proposed a new policy called “low-level presence” (LLP) under which the government would allow low amounts of unapproved GM material in imported food.
The rationale behind this policy is that sometimes imported foods contain traces of GM products permitted in the country of export, but not in Canada, which can disrupt the entire shipment and thus disrupt international trade. Canada hopes that by adopting this policy—which, if approved, would make Canada the first country in the world to allow LLP—other countries would follow suit and thus avoid disruptions to Canada’s international trade. The proposal recently finished the stakeholder consultation phase.
Is GM Food Necessary in Canada?
Canada, a vast and resource-rich country, is one of the largest agricultural exporters in the world. According to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the agriculture and agri-food industry contributes $100 billion to Canada’s gross domestic product annually.
For Canadian farmers, the benefits of using GM crops or byproducts outweigh any costs or risks, according to Andreas Boecker, an associate professor in the department of food, agriculture, and resource economics at the University of Guelph.
“Since GM is primarily aimed at reducing the per-unit cost of production—and feed is a major cost in animal production—the technology contributes to Canada’s competitiveness in global commodity markets,” Boecker said in an email.
“Since Canada is a major agricultural exporter, from this perspective, GM crops have been beneficial,” he said.
Conversely, Boecker said, for organic producers, GMOs are bad news, as for example trying to mitigate the risk of losing organic certification due to cross-pollination or occurrence of GM products in their output adds to the cost.
There is, of course, the concern for safety of GMO consumption as well.
In a recent open letter, Thierry Vrain, a now-retired research scientist with Agriculture Canada, said he doesn’t buy the argument made by biotechnology companies that GM crops have higher yields and require less pesticide, and that they have no impact on health and the environment.
Vrain said there are a number of studies showing laboratory mice and rats develop serious health problems after consuming GM corn or soya.
“We should all take these studies seriously and demand that the government agencies replicate them, rather than rely on studies paid for by the biotech companies,” Vrain said in his letter.
Prominent Canadian academic, broadcaster, and environmental activist David Suzuki also said that it’s not proven that pesticide- and herbicide-resistant crops increase yields and decrease costs, and there is increased concern for their impact on health and the environment.
“The safety of GMO foods is unproven, and a growing body of research connects these foods with health concerns and environmental damage,” Suzuki said in an article published on the website of the David Suzuki Foundation.
“Because we aren’t certain about the effects of GMOs, we must consider one of the guiding principles in science, the precautionary principle. Under this principle, if a policy or action could harm human health or the environment, we must not proceed until we know for sure what the impact will be.”
Boecker said that all experts agree there is not a 100 percent guarantee on safety. But, he added, “We have to accept that new technologies have risks but we cannot block new technologies simply because something might go wrong in the future.”
“Since there can be no 100 percent certainty with regard to the safety of new products and technologies, it is important that the technology be monitored in all aspects so that policies can be adapted to manage emerging risks. I see this happening because there are concerned farmers, consumers, and scientists,” he said.
Blossom Leung, a spokeswoman with Health Canada, said in an emailed response that the government’s safety assessment approach addresses any potential risks in foods from biotechnology.
Studies in Canada on the Health Effects of GMOs
One of the more well known, and by some accounts only, long-term Canadian study on the effect of GMOs on humans is a study by University of Sherbrooke researchers published in 2011.
In the study, researchers found traces of toxic pesticides that are implanted into GM crops in 93 percent of pregnant mothers and 80 percent of umbilical cords, suggesting that the chemicals were entering the body by consuming products from livestock fed with GM corn, contradicting the GMO industry’s claim that harmful chemicals in the crops pass out of the body.
Health Canada’s Leung said that the department doesn’t deem long-term studies are needed for the GM products created with current technologies.
“Many of the issues raised by foods resulting from the application of biotechnology are equally applicable to foods produced by conventional means,” Leung said.
“Given that the application of genetic modification does not introduce unique risks, the potential for long-term effects of these foods are no different than that for conventional foods, which have been safely part of the Canadian diet for a long time. Therefore, there is no current evidence to indicate that long-term studies are needed to ensure the safety of foods produced using this technology.”
One of the most cited long-term studies by activists in Canada is the study published by a group of French researchers led by Gilles-Eric Seralini in 2012 claiming that rats fed with GM corn were likely to develop tumors and die prematurely.
After reviewing the study, Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said the study has “significant shortcomings,” making the “validity of the study results difficult to determine.” A number of other government food safety agencies in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand also reported similar conclusions.
Lucy Sharrat, a coordinator with the anti-GMO group Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN), charges that since Health Canada has already approved so many GM foods, it is generally “reluctant to take new research seriously if it points out possible problems.”
Reporting by Matthew Little and Justina Reichel.
The Epoch Times is exploring the issue of genetic modification, especially as it pertains to food products, with a series titled “GMOs, A Global Debate.” Each article in this series focuses on the role and reception of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in a different country. See all articles tagged GMOs and Biotech here