GMOs in Canada: A Place for EIA?

Many of us have heard of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and multiple issues surrounding how they are made, controlled and used. This includes some countries opposing their entry into their borders and lawsuits between a large corporation owning extensive GMO patents (Monsanto) and farmers. Why do many people oppos GMOs, and how can Environmental Impact Assessment be used as a tool to protect not only physical environments, but social and health as well? To try and briefly answer these questions I will primarily look at genetically engineered plants (GE plants).

GE plants are produced in a lab wherein genetic material, predominantly from bacteria, microorganisms and other plants, are transferred via gene splicing into seeds through different techniques, most often mediated transformation or microprojectile bombardment (1). While plants have historically been ‘bred’ by farmers to increase desirable traits, these techniques are time consuming and “unreliable” compared to the fast and “reliable” method of genetic engineering (1,2,3). Many GE plants are made to be herbicide resistant and pest free to ensure they can grow in many environments. Nutrients are often added and proponents argue that GE plants and GMOs in general provide a solution to the global food crisis (2). It is unclear how this increased growth is rectified against the increased strain on the soil and other environmental effects. The countries most using GMO plants can be viewed in the table.

IF GE plants can save the world, then why do so many oppose them? While many of the effects are difficult to predict, there is the real threat of the genes spreading to other species, and as antibiotics are often used, bacteria resistant to antibiotics are a potential result. Similarly, the herbicide free GE crops can interact with weeds, producing a ‘super weed’ not easily killed. There are high risks to biodiversity not only through the spread of plant genes, but monopolies over GE seeds are forcing many farmers to use these seed (1,2,3). Potential health effects are largely unknown, although allergies are quite common (2). Socioeconomic effects include a rising disparity between those who can afford the patented seeds and those who cannot, and the lawsuits that can accompany this choice (2). Views on both sides of common issues regarding GE crops are exemplified in the video below.

Two possible solutions to these problems are to plant a non GM corn crop as a buffer surrounding the GM crop to stop seeds from spreading via wind or to make sterile genes. One problem with these ‘suicide genes’ is that it forces farmers to continually buy new seeds every year instead of saving seeds over generations  and finding a ‘best fit’ for the local conditions (2). There are many more political and social implications to this not covered here.  Honestly, I do not understand how effective a border of corn would be in stopping wind transfer, and it ignores the spread of seeds from other sources, like transportation.

Many countries either have strong regulatory conditions on GMOs or ban their integration. South Africa, the 8th country to most use GMOs requires an approved EA to receive a permit under the National Environmental Management and Biodiversity Act 2005 section 78 (4). Following public disapproval, India exemplified the precautionary principle in 2010, banning a GE eggplant until independent scientific analysis could be completed (5). Regulation in the US is complicated by 3 government agencies (the EPA, USDA and FDA) regulating different aspects of the plants and many positions on the US senate and Monsanto executive being filled by the same people (2). The EU is a powerhouse in the control of GMOs with a strict approval process before GE plants may enter the market (3). All GMO food needs to be comprehensively labelled and antibiotic resistant markers were intended to be phased out by 2008 (3). While some countries, including Bangladesh, China, India and Nigeria, use socioeconomic assessments, health and environmental assessments are predominantly utilized (6).

How does Canada, who ranks 4th in terms of hectares used for GE plant growth, compare? Labeling is not mandatory, and a private member’s bill in 2001 regarding this issue did not pass. The government’s stance is that the ‘industry will lose a lot of money if labels are mandatory’ (7). Health Canada’s official statement appears to be that “GM foods are as safe as conventional foods” (7). While there is little information on EAs or standards on GMOs in Canada, I think it is safe to argue that they are not strongly enforced if they do exist. Taking the risks into account, I cannot think of a logical reason why they should not be. Although costs of food would likely increase, I believe that consumers should know exactly what they are buying and that the government has an obligation to ensure the safety of such choices.

Petitions regarding GMOs filed with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency can be viewed here: http://www.inspection.gc.ca/english/sci/biotech/trans/petitionse.shtml

Sources:

[1] Mertens, M. 2008. Assessment of Environmental Impacts of Genetically Modified Plants. Institute for Biodiversity. Last accessed March 19, 2012 http://www.bfn.de/fileadmin/MDB/documents/service/skript217.pdf

[2] Whitman, D.B. 2000. Genetically Modified Foods: Harmful or Helpful? CSA Discover Aids. Last accessed March 17, 2012 http://www.fhs.d211.org/departments/science/mduncan/bioweb/Biotechnology/Genetically%20Modified%20Foods.pdf

[3] BFN. Nd. Environmental Risk Assessment and Monitoring and Surveillance of Transgenic Cops. Federal Agency for Natural Conservation. Last Accessed March 15, 2012 http://www.bfn.de/0301_risiko+M52087573ab0.html

[4] African Centre for Biosafety. 2010. The monitoring of environmental impacts of GMOs in South Africa: a status quo report. Last Accessed March 10, 2012 http://www.biosafety-info.net/file_dir/11035917204b5d0ea43425f.pdf

[5] Agencies. 2010. Government says no to BT brinjal for now. The Times of India. Last accessed March 18, 2012 http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2010-02-09/india/28134893_1_bt-brinjal-series-of-public-consultations-time-independent-scientific-studies

[6] Spök, Dr. A. 2010. Assessing Socio-Economic Impacts for GMOs. Issues to Consider for Policy Development Final Report. Last accessed March 15, 2012 http://ec.europa.eu/food/food/biotechnology/reports_studies/docs/Austria_impacts_en.pdf

[7] CBC News Online. 2004. INDEPTH: GENETIC MODIFICATION Genetically Modified Foods: a primer. Last accessed March 20, 2012 http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/genetics_modification/

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