Preventing genetically modified (GM) crops from contaminating non-GM crops is practically impossible.
That’s the message weed scientist Rene Van Acker would have given the House of Commons’ agriculture committee hearing on Bill C-474 in Ottawa Oct. 28, had he been given the opportunity.
But hearings on NDP MP Alex Atamanenko’s legislation came to an abrupt end last week when the House of Commons voted down the committee’s request for a 30-day extension.
The bill would require the federal government to analyze “the potential harm to (Canadian) export markets,” of new GM crops before approving their commercial release.
It now returns to the House for third reading, where it’s expected to be defeated because Conservative and Liberal MPs oppose it.
GM developers and most farm groups, with the exception of the National Farmers Union (NFU), also oppose the bill, saying assessing market impact is unscientific and will discourage future research and development of GM crops.
Besides Van Acker, representatives from the NFU, Grain Growers of Canada (GGC), Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) and CropLife Canada were scheduled to speak Oct. 28.
“I just wanted to make sure there was an awareness of the level of challenge that’s involved in trying to contain traits or segregate one crop from another,” Van Acker, associate dean of external relations at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Agricultural College, said in an interview
Van Acker, who has studied GM gene movement between crops, said he is neither in favour nor opposed to C-474. But he said the risk to markets is real.
In testimony prepared for the committee, Van Acker said when GM crops are grown commercially “the movement of traits (transgenes) beyond their intended destinations is virtually inevitable.” The bigger the crop, the bigger the risk.
“Once a given trait has escaped into the environment, which includes agricultural supply chains, retraction is difficult if not impossible, and as such in situations where the escape is a problem, the problem becomes persistent and likely permanent.”
That’s what worries the CWB, said District 3 director and Kane-area farmer Bill Toews.
The CWB is neutral on C-474, but it does support having a way to ensure the introduction of new GM crops doesn’t undermine markets, he said.
“In our opinion genetic modification as a biotechnology tool has possible benefits but because of the market sensitivity it has to be handled properly,” he said.
Science-based regulations are needed, but there’s already a precedent for considering the market impact, Toews said. Before a new milling wheat is registered for Western Canada it must meet certain end-use standards. While those standards, such as ash content, can be scientifically measured, the parameters are based on market acceptance.
In his written presentation, Toews said half the CWB’s export wheat and barley customers don’t want GM.
Before commercializing GM crops the CWB wants widespread market acceptance from the governments of major customers and consumers.
It also wants a globally accepted low level of presence for GM crops in non-GM crops and an effective system to segregate the two.
“The CWB needs to take additional leadership on developing a protocol for introducing GM wheat and barley, as it did when Roundup Ready wheat was being considered for release,” Toews said
“I honestly believe to leave it to the developers alone is not the answer.”
CropLife Canada, which represents GM developers, wants C-474 defeated.
CropLife president Lorne Hepworth said in an email he’s hopeful the bill will be defeated.
Hepworth said C-474 purports to help farmers, but would do the opposite by stifling innovation. “Had Bill C-474 passed 30 years ago the re would be no Canadian canola industry,” he said.
GM crops already benefit Canadian farmers and new innovations will help farmers and consumers, he said. Meanwhile, GM developers already consider the impact on markets before releasing new crops and seek regulatory approvals in major export markets before commercialization.
The GGC says there’s been enough discussion on C-474, given it’s unlikely to become law, GGC executive director Richard Phillips said in an email.
NFU president Terry Boehm, who travelled to Ottawa for the hearing, said in a release he was outraged it was cancelled. He urged MPs to pass the bill.
“Canadian farmers and the country cannot take any more market hits because of the sacred cow of biotech,” he [email protected]
“Once a given trait has escaped into the environment, which includes agricultural supply chains,
retraction is difficult if not impossible,
…the problem becomes persistent
and likely permanent.”
– RENE VAN ACKER