There is no such thing as risk-free anything. However, this fact does not stop some from demanding risk-free agricultural biotechnology.
The controversies (mostly hypothetical) over genetically engineered (GE) crops and food never seem to end. As soon as one scare story is demonstrated to be false or highly unlikely, another floods the media. No doubt, this is by design. Canada recently stirred up a hornets nest when its representatives at the meeting of the U.N. Convention on Biodiversity in Bangkok called for the end to a de facto moratorium on the research and development of genetic use restriction technologies for genetically engineered crops.
Genetic use restriction technologies or GURTs are systems designed to prevent the unwanted transfer of transgenes (the DNA engineered into GE plants) to other plants or the unauthorized propagation of transgenic crops. There are several different ways they work, but these systems have one thing in common. They all block the possibility of the engineered genes and traits from ending up elsewhere.
Some GURT-containing GE seeds will not germinate, for example, while other GURT engineered plants will produce only sterile pollen. Either way, no genetically engineered genes will spread to other plants. This is why critics of GE crops call these terminator technologies. Perhaps more than any other aspects of genetically engineered crops, these technologies have been the target of massive fear-generating campaigns by critics.
Critics say GURTs threaten farmers in the developing world by preventing the saving of seed from this year's crop for next years planting. But GURTs are not designed for developing world farmers. They are designed, in part, for farmers who already buy new seed each year. Most farmers in the developed world buy hybrid, certified or transgenic seed each year. These types of seed cost more, but produce far better yields, protect the environment or cost far less to grow, so the farmer gains in the end. Virtually all corn grown in North America is from hybrid seed with 50 per cent transgenic. Better than 70 per cent of the canola grown in Canada is transgenic. The benefits are well documented, including less pesticide use, healthier corn with less fungal toxin contamination and healthy canola oils that are trans-fat free.
The development and incorporation of GURT technologies would have several advantages over today's transgenic crops. Along with ending illegal propagation of transgenic crops, the issue of horizontal gene flow would also be eliminated. Therefore, there would no longer be any issue of cross-pollination between transgenic and organic crops.
Perhaps this is why certain groups are fighting the development of GURTs so ferociously. In fact, pollen from transgenic crops does not threaten organic crop certification at all. According to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), there should not be any threshold of cross-pollination, and if it occurs it does not necessarily threaten the organic status of the product. The IFOAM does not even advocate mandatory testing for the cross-pollination of organically grown crops from transgenic ones.
It has been suggested that GURTs will threaten biodiversity. Critics claim the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, of which Canada is a signature, prohibits the development of GURTs. However, Article 2 of the protocol states: "Parties shall ensure that the development, handling, transport, use and release of any living modified organism [international term for GE crops] are undertaken in a manner that prevents or reduces the risks to biodiversity."
Since GURTs would block gene flow from transgenic crops to other plants, their incorporation into biotechnology crops is actually in keeping with the International Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety agreement. There are approximately 60,000 seed varieties sold in North America each year. There are approximately 100 transgenic varieties of crops. It seems very far-fetched to suggest 100 transgenic varieties with sterile GURT engineering are going to threaten 60,000 non-transgenic varieties.
Blocking gene flow is important in another area of agricultural biotechnology. Up to now the production of most pharmaceuticals has required very expensive laboratories and production facilities. This is all about to change. Scientists have developed ways to make pharmaceuticals in plants. This has tremendous health and economic benefits. Where once a particular pharmaceutical might cost $100 per dose to produce, it can now be made in a plant for pennies. Everything from vaccines to heart medicines will be produced in genetically engineered plants. Of course, safety issues surrounding the growing of "pharma crops" have been considered in detail. There are very elaborate rules to maintain separation between food and pharmaceutical producing crops, including dedicated fields, large isolation distances, dedicated equipment, as well as separate storage and processing facilities.
Adding GURT technology to pharma crops would further increase the safety with the complete elimination of the possibility of pollen flow from pharma crops to related plants.
The whole world stands to benefit from such developments. Soon the lack of refrigeration that has hampered vaccine delivery in many parts of the world will no longer be a problem, for example. Pharma crops containing edible vaccines will be grown wherever they are needed. Two of the pharma crops furthest along in development contain vaccines for Hepatitis and Norwalk virus. Hundreds of millions of people stand to benefit from these advances in agricultural biotechnology.
Almost 10 years of growing biotechnology crops has demonstrated huge environmental benefits, better yields and healthier food with absolutely no demonstrated harm from consumption. Canada should be applauded for its call for a return of a science-based approach to continued research and development of GURTs. It is clear there are many benefits to incorporating GURTs into agricultural biotechnology.
Friday, February 18, 2005 Updated at 4:13 PM EST
Special to Globe and Mail Update