Genetically Modified Organisms in Agriculture

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Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are created by altering genes and/or transferring genes isolated from one organism to another in order to add new proper ties to the recipient organism. GMOs – particularly corn, soybeans, and potatoes – are seeing increased use in agriculture.

Crops are frequently bio-engineered to increase resistance to common pests. For example, Bt corn, which is widely grown in Ontario, has been modified to include the natural insecticide Bt, making it toxic to the European corn borer. Other crops are modified to become resistant to herbicides, allowing farmers to apply herbicides while crops are growing rather than before planting. Corn, cotton, rice, beets and more than half of the U.S. 1999 soybean crop have all been engineered for resistance to Monsanto’s Roundup® herbicide. In Ontario in 1999, about 25 per cent of the soybean crop, 35 per cent of the corn crop, 60 per cent of the canola crop and about 200 hectares of potatoes were genetically modified. According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, approximately 60 to 75 per cent of all Canadian processed food contains genetically engineered ingredients.

The bio-engineering of livestock species is also an active area of research at facilities such as the University of Guelph. Researchers there are investigating numerous concepts, including transgenic chickens that produce eggs containing custom-designed antibodies that would protect people against diseases. With the support of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, researchers are also pioneering cell manipulation technologies such as in-vitro embryo production of pigs. The technique uses eggs harvested from slaughtered young sows that show superior meat quality.

The development of some types of GMOs may have positive environmental effects. GMOs that resist insects and diseases may reduce the need for applications of pesticides. However, crops that are modified to increase their resistance to common herbicides may result in increased herbicide use. As well, there is potential for herbicide resistance genes in genetically modified crops to be transferred to weeds, making control of those weeds more difficult and also resulting in increased herbicide use. Canola is one crop that is closely related to several weeds such as wild mustard, and researchers have found that its pollen can travel as far as two kilometers. Researchers have also found that transgenic canola readily breeds with a weed relative, and that the resulting weedy plants are herbicide resistant.

There is also a concern that insect pests will become resistant to the toxins that have been inserted into transgenic crops, especially since large acreages are now being grown. For example, researchers agree that it is just a matter of time before the European Corn Borer becomes resistant to Bt corn. In Ontario, growers are encouraged – but not required – to plant at least 40 per cent of their crop as non-Bt corn, to slow down the development of resistance to the insecticide Bt.

The federal government is the primary regulator of GMOs used by farmers and other food producers. Health Canada, which is responsible for ensuring foods are safe for humans, has approved more than 40 genetically modified foods. The companies and researchers who develop GMOs generally conduct reviews and tests of the products they wish to introduce into the Canadian food market, with the federal agencies reviewing the results. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), an agency of the Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, assesses the potential environmental risk of genetically engineered organisms.

Although Ontario does not regulate which genetically modified crops may be grown, OMAFRA’s role as an advisor to Ontario farmers allows the ministry to influence the adoption of GMOs. OMAFRA is also the lead Ontario ministry on agricultural issues under the new international Biosafety Protocol Agreement, the goal of which is to reduce risks to the environment and biodiversity arising from trade in Living Modified Organisms. Living Modified Organisms (LMOs) are treated as a special category of GMOs by regulators since they are genetically modified plants, animals and microorganisms that are capable of metabolic activity. LMOs would include viable seeds, for example, but not the flours or oils produced from them.

OMAFRA informed the Environmental Commissioner in March 2000 that it will “continue to participate in, and to advocate for, open public consultations on all LMO and GMO issues.” OMAFRA is also working with concerned industry sectors and its public sector par tners on issues regarding GMOs and other new products of biotechnology.

While OMAFRA says that the public’s priorities in this area focus mainly on human health safety, there are also important environmental issues to be considered. Currently these issues are not part of any public debate in Ontario, perhaps due in par t to the limited information available on ecosystem impacts. Ontario needs to fund independent research and thinking on some of the fundamental questions around GMOs. The ECO looks forward to the details of OMAFRA’s consultations on LMO and GMO issues.

The Ministry of Energy, Science and Technology (MEST) also promotes biotechnology research through its Challenge Fund, and on April 5, 2000, the ministry announced it would invest up to $75 million over five years in genomics research at several universities, including the University of Guelph. The ministry also recently announced the creation of a new Ontario Science and Innovation Council, which is to advise the government on policy initiatives, including ethical questions related to biotech and genetically engineered foods. It is not clear whether this advisory council will address environmental issues.

Ontario lacks a provincial advocate for ecosystem protection capable of addressing GMO issues. To avoid conflict of interest, this advocate should be separate from OMAFRA and MEST, since these ministries actively promote GMO technology.

Recommendation 18:

The ECO recommends that the Ontario government establish a provincial advocate for ecosystem protection capable of addressing GMO issues. This provincial advocate should be independent of OMAFRA and MEST.

Recommendation 19:

The ECO recommends that the Ontario government fund independent research and thinking on some of the fundamental ecological questions related to genetically modified organisms.

This is an article from the 1999/2000 Annual Report to the Legislature from the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario.

Citing This Article
Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 2000. "Genetically Modified Organisms in Agriculture." Changing Perspectives, ECO Annual Report, 1999-2000. Toronto, ON : Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 132-134.