March 25, 2016
The Demise of Monsanto’s Genetically Engineered Potato
By Lucy Sharratt, Canadian Biotechnology Action Network
from the Summer 2003 issue of EcoFarm & Garden, the magazine of Canadian Organic Growers
The Canadian government has approved 5 varieties of Bt potatoes – potatoes genetically engineered with genes from the soil bacterium Bacilus thuringiensis (Bt) to be resistant to the Colorado potato beetle – all of which are owned by Monsanto. But none of these are currently on the market in Canada or the U.S. – Monsanto says they stopped selling the potatoes because they captured less than 5% of the North American market.
Gone But Not Forgotten
You might remember that in 1999 the New Brunswick company McCains declared that they would not use the Bt potatoes because it was clear that consumers did not want them. But consumer protest and slim market share are not the only reasons the genetically engineered (GE) potato has disappeared from the field.
In fact, a major problem was environmental. The eventuality of insects developing resistance to the Bt toxin has always been a concern with the introduction of Bt crops, but this was viewed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) as a risk that could be “managed” rather than an environmental hazard that should keep Bt potatoes from being approved. However, a 1998 CFIA audit of Monsanto’s test sites for two new Bt varieties revealed the failure of this strategy and in the end Monsanto could not manage this risk or accurately follow the guidelines for commercial growing (From Access to Information documents obtained by Ken Rubin for the Canadian Health Coalition). For example, Monsanto was supposed to inform farmers of the measures they needed to take to minimize the risk of insects developing resistance. Farmers should have been asked to maintain “refuges” which are areas planted with non-GE potatoes designed to slow resistance by giving the beetle somewhere else to go, but in this case many refuges were actually being sprayed with insecticides, defeating their very purpose. In the face of these widespread problems, Monsanto took the potato off the market.
Secret Deals With Monsanto
What happened to the Bt potato can tell us a lot about the poor planning and arrogance of companies in trying to push GE food acceptance on consumers as well as corporations’ reckless attitude towards the environment, but how the Bt potato got to market in the first place also reveals a great deal about corporate power and its influence inside government.
In the end, it took a secret deal between Monsanto and the CFIA and Health Canada for the two new Bt varieties to be approved in 1999. When the CFIA discovered the “extremely poor” field tests they asked Monsanto for more data – but Monsanto refused. Health Canada stated, “Monsanto objected to these requests; believing that their data adequately supports their conclusions that these products present ‘no significant environmental, feed or food safety risk’’. To obtain the data from Monsanto, the departments struck a deal with the corporation where they pledged to speedily decide on the approval of the potato – within 30 days of receiving the information. Internal memos show that John Doessetor, the senior advisor to the then Minister of Health Alan Rock, was kept up to date on these negotiations – a highly unusual situation since the Minister’s office is not supposed to be directly involved in product reviews. But this is not the end of the story since two years, after the secret deal, John Doessetor was hired by Monsanto to be the corporation’s top lobbyist in Ottawa, “responsible for the development and implementation of Monsanto’s government affairs strategies in Canada.”
For documents from this story: www.healthcoalition.ca/gmo-archives.html
- What is Genetic Modification?
- Is it called GM or GE?
- What GM Foods are on the Market?
- How Can I Avoid GM Foods?
- Is there a PLU (price look-up) code that tells me if a product is GMO?
- Are GM Foods Safe to Eat?
- What are the Environmental Risks?
- Who Owns GM Seeds ?
1. What is Genetic Modification?
Genetic modification (GM) is recombinant DNA technology – its also called genetic engineering
or GE. With genetic engineering scientists can change plants or animals at the molecular level by
inserting genes or DNA segments from other organisms. Unlike conventional breeding and hybridization, the process of genetic engineering enables the direct transfer of genes between different species or kingdoms that would not breed in nature.
2. Is it called GM or GE?
The terms genetic engineering (GE) and genetic modification (GM) are both used to describe recombinant DNA (rDNA) technology. GM is the term used in international agreements and in European regulation as well as in many other English-speaking countries. GE is the term used in U.S. legislation. Unfortunately, the Canadian government uses both terms while trying to avoid talking about the technology altogether: the Canadian government regulates “Plants with Novel Traits” and “Novel Foods” which include products of genetic engineering but also products of conventional plant breeding.
To add to confusion, the term GM is often used imprecisely to include other, older technologies. For example, industry often says that farmers have been “modifying” plants and animals for centuries. While farmer plant breeding is the foundation of our entire food system, farmers have not been using rDNA technology.
3. What GM Foods are on the Market?
Four GM crops are grown in Canada: corn, soy, canola and white sugar beet (for sugar processing). These are widely used as ingredients in processed foods. There is also now some GM sweet corn grown in Ontario and more could be grown in the future.
Also, GM cotton (cottonseed oil) and some papaya and a few types of squash are grown in the U.S. and can be imported into Canada.
X GM Apples: A GM non-browning apple was approved in Canada and the US in 2015 but it is not yet on the market.
X GM Tomatoes: There are NO GM tomatoes on the market anywhere in the world.
X GM Potatoes: Monsanto took GM potatoes off the market because of consumer
rejection. A new GM potato was approved in late 2014 in the US but it is not yet approved in Canada.
X GM Wheat: In 2004, Monsanto withdrew its request for approval of GM wheat in Canada and the US because of consumer and farmer protest. Monsanto has relaunched its GM wheat research.
X Most of the GM corn grown in Canada is grain corn used for animal feed or processed food ingredients. There is no GM popcorn on the market. There are a few varieties of GM
sweetcorn now being sold in Canada.
For details on where these GM crops are planted, and how much, see CBAN’s report “Where in the world are GM crops and foods?”
4. How Can I Avoid GM Foods?
Our government does not require labeling. But you can still make a choice:
- Eating certified organic food is one way you can avoid GM food because GM is prohibited in organic farming. This includes organic dairy, eggs and meat because animals in organic farming are not fed GM grains like corn or soy.
- You can avoid eating processed foods with corn, canola and soy ingredients.
- You can buy cane sugar to avoid eating sugar from GM sugarbeets.
- Support farmers who fight GM: buy food directly from farmers who do not plant GM corn, canola or soy or use GM grains for meat, dairy or egg production.
5. Is there a PLU (price look-up) code that tells me if a product is GMO?
They are the small labels on your fruits and vegetables.
Number “9” is Organic: PLU (price look-up) codes distinguish between organic and conventionally produced fresh fruits and vegetables. But certified organic food is already identified with the organic national standard logo. Organic food is produced without the use of any genetically modified organisms. Organic produce is identified with a number that begins with “9”. For example, 4011 identifies a conventionally grown papaya and 94011 identifies an organically grown papaya.
Number “8” is NO LONGER USED FOR GMOS: The International Federation for Produce Standards has actually set aside a number (8) for identifying GM foods but it was not being used and was changed in 2015 to identify conventionally produced food (not organic).
More importantly, thereare no GM fruits or vegetables on the market in Canada except for the following:
- Some GM sweetcorn from the US and Canada
- GM Papaya from the US (Hawaii) (not papaya imported from Brazil for example
- Possibly some GM squash and zucchini from the US only
6. Are GM Foods Safe to Eat?
We don’t know what, if any, impacts GM foods could have on our health. There are many
unanswered safety questions.
Many scientists warn that:
- The process of genetic engineering could create new allergens.
- Foreign DNA may be able to survive in the human gut.
- Animal feeding studies indicate liver and kidney problems.
GM foods are approved for human consumption based on company-produced science. The
data is secret and is not peer-reviewed by independent scientists. Health Canada does not do its own testing. There is no mandatory labeling in Canada, and no tracking or monitoring of possible health impacts. Click here for more information on human health questions.
or see the strong 2012 report “GMO Myths and Truths, An evidence-based examination of the claims made for the safety and efficacy of genetically modified crops”, by Michael Antoniou, PhD, Claire Robinson, and John Fagan, PhD, published by Earth Open Source. The report is 123 pages and contains over 600 citations, many of them from the peer-reviewed scientific literature and the rest from reports by scientists, physicians, government bodies, industry, and the media.
7. What are the Environmental Risks?
Once GM plants are released into the environment they cannot be controlled or recalled.
Genetic pollution is irreversible living pollution that self-replicates. Contamination of other
plants is a major problem because the genes from any crop can move, via seed and pollen flow. GM crops are resulting in increased pesticide use, herbicide tolerant weeds, and the expansion of industrial farming. Click here for more information on environmental impacts.
8. Who Owns GM Seeds ?
GM technology facilitates corporate control because patents on genetic sequences mean that corporations can own seeds. Monsanto is the largest seed company in the world and
owns about 86% of GM seeds sown globally.