Where does genetic contamination come from?
Organic standards require organic farmers to do everything they can to minimize the risk that the crops they grow will be subject to genetic contamination. The most common source of genetic contamination is neighbouring fields that are growing genetically modified (GM) crops. In Canada, the most common GM crops are canola, corn and soy beans, but other crops types such as sugar beets can also be sources of genetic contamination.
What is Genetic Engineering?
When an organism’s (plant or animal) genetic material is purposely modified in the laboratory, we call this genetic engineering (GE). Biotechnology companies modify a plant's genetic material to develop traits that they believe will have beneficial agronomic or health qualities. The most common GE trait that has been developed to date is the ability for crops to tolerate the damaging effects of glyphosate-based weed killers - thus allowing farmers to apply weed killers broadly without worrying about harming the crop.
During this biotechnology process, genes from one species are transferred into the DNA of another species. Throughout the life cycle of a genetically engineneered, or transgenic plant, modified genetic material is replicated and transferred through natural life cycle processes. Thus the transformed genes are expressed in all of the seeds that crop bears. The modified genetic material also spreads through natural pollination to other transgenic crops, nontransgenic crops, and even native plants. Thus, it is extraordinarily difficult to restrict gene flow to a single field or crop.
Why is this technology banned in Organic Agriculture?
Because organic principles are built around the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle councils us to avoid serious or irreversible potential harm in the face of scientific uncertainty. Despite what we hear from the biotechnology companies that manufacture products using GE technology, the long-term environmental and health impacts of GM products are far from understood. It is for these same reasons that GE technology is banned in the European Union. Below, you'll find links to some of the best independent science on the social, agronomic, environmental and health costs of GE technology.
Widespread use of transgenic seeds which are designed to tolerate glyphosate herbicides (weed killers) have increased, rather than decreased the use of herbicides as claimed. Herbicides have known adverse impacts on biodiversity, soil life and water quality [C. Benbrook (2009) Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use: The First Thirteen Years, The Organic Center]
Products genetically modified to confer herbicide tolerance increase the use of glyphosate herbicides. There is a growing body of scientific literature showing a relationship between glyphosate herbicides and human health.
- A.J. De Roos, et al. (2003) Integrative Assessment of Multiple Pesticides as Risk Factors for Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma Among Men, Occup. Environ. Med., 60:E11
- L. Hardell, et al. (2002) Exposure to Pesticides as Risk Factor for Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and Hairy Cell Leukemia: Pooled Analysis of Two Swedish Case Control Studies. Leuk Lymphoma, 43:1043–1049
- C. Gasnier, et al. (2009) Glyphosate Based Herbicides are Toxic and Endocrine Disruptors in Human Cell Lines, Toxicology 262:184-191
- As of 2008, there were 7.6 million acres of GM crops planted in Canada, placing us in a dead heat with India for 4th place in the biotechnology race behind the U.S., Argentina and Brazil.
- The biotechnology promise of of greater crop yields have not materilized. In fact, studies have shown that transgeneic seed does not result in any meaningful improvement in yield. [D. Gurian Sherman (2009) Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops, Union of Concerned Scientists]. The Attorney General of West Virginia filed suit against Monsanto after his office determined that published independent results contradicted the yield claims made by Monsanto.
- Increased use of glyphosate caused by transgenic seed has produced weeds that are resistant to herbicides, making it harder for farmers to eliminate them. Tolerance to glyphosate has now been demonstrated in at least nine different agricultural weeds. [C. Benbrook (2009) Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use: The First Thirteen Years, The Organic Center]. The biotech solution? Increase the amount and types of herbicides used.