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GM Updates: Pulling Solutions out of Thin Air

in 2019/Climate Change/Crop Production/GMO Updates/Grow Organic/Organic Standards/Pest Management/Winter 2019

The Dangers of Investing in the Promise of the Techno-Fix

Lucy Sharratt

For 20 years, the world’s biggest seed and pesticide companies have profited from selling genetically modified (GM, also called genetically engineered) seeds that are tied to their brand name herbicide formulations. In fact, almost 100% of the GM crops now grown in Canada are genetically modified to be herbicide-tolerant; 88% globally. This reality is far from the promises that were made for this powerful new technology.

Canadians are still being asked to throw their support behind genetic engineering in the name of innovation and progress, to solve the biggest problems of our time. We are being asked to forgo precautionary regulations and mandatory GM food labelling to clear the way, and to direct significant resources away from seed systems that serve organic farmers. Our experience with genetic engineering provides some important lessons about the impacts of focusing on the potential of techno-fixes.

GM’s Solution is More Pesticides

Five GM crops are grown in Canada: corn, canola, soy, white sugar beet, and a very small amount of alfalfa. All are herbicide-tolerant except for a few GM sweet corn varieties that are only insect-resistant. GM herbicide-tolerant crops are grown on 409.7 million acres around the world and most of this is GM glyphosate-tolerant soy grown for animal feed, processed food ingredients and fuel or other industrial uses. Seventy seven percent of the world’s soy crop is now herbicide-tolerant. This GM soy cultivation relies on pesticides derived from petrochemicals and it is literally eating into the Amazon.

Instead of reducing pesticide use, GM crops have protected the market share for brand name herbicide formulations such as Monsanto’s Roundup. In Canada, herbicides sales have increased by 199% since the introduction of GM crops (1994-2016).

GM crops have facilitated a recommitment to herbicide use, and the overuse of glyphosate in particular. At first, some herbicide-tolerant crops helped farmers more efficiently apply herbicides but ultimately their use sped up and entrenched the existing pesticide treadmill, with more chemicals and more GM traits stacked together. It is not enough anymore to sell glyphosate-tolerant seeds—now GM seeds are marketed with tolerance to multiple herbicides at once, to deal with glyphosate-resistant weeds.

The evolution and spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds since 1996 is now rendering glyphosate herbicides redundant. In 2010, Monsanto began offering rebates to farmers when its herbicide failed to kill all their weeds. Now DowDupont (Corteva) is warning that weeds with resistance to multiple herbicides may prevent some farmers from growing certain crops altogether.

The corporate response to the failure of GM herbicide-tolerant cropping systems is to sell more products into that same system. In 2017, Monsanto launched its Roundup Ready™ Xtend™ dicamba-tolerant plus glyphosate-tolerant GM soy and, in 2018, DowDupont sold its GM corn Enlist™ that is tolerant to 2,4-D plus glyphosate. Such stacking of GM traits for tolerance to multiple herbicides is now the norm and is a doubling down on chemical agriculture.

The contrast between this reality and the grand vision for genetic engineering warns that even the most exciting science can have serious limitations in real world application. The science of genetic engineering itself has limitations but the promise is also limited by who owns and controls the technology.

Corporate Techno-Solutions to the Rescue

Rather than provide innovative solutions, GM has, so far, propped up an existing production model that relies on expensive farm inputs sold by the biggest seed and pesticide companies in the world. Until 2016, the global market for GM crops was dominated by six companies, Monsanto, Dupont, Syngenta, Dow, Bayer and BASF, that, together, controlled around 75% of the global pesticide market and 62% of the commercial seed market. After a wave of mergers, these markets are now controlled by just four companies: Bayer bought Monsanto, Dow and Dupont merged, ChemChina bought Syngenta, and some of Bayer’s and Monsanto’s business was sold to BASF. This corporate concentration has also eliminated or constrained non-GM seed options for some farmers.

It is important to evaluate the promises that were made because they are still being used to argue for removing regulations and because these same promises are being repeated with the advent of new genetic engineering techniques. The techniques of gene editing, such as CRISPR, are being hyped with the promise of achieving everything that the earlier techniques could not. However, promoting a new technology relies on looking to the promise around the corner and overpromising is often also used to build investment interest. The danger is that we are building a vision for our future based on corporate investment strategies that often pull solutions out of thin air, instead of looking to the ground where farmers are already innovating.

The GM solution continues to fail. At the end of 2018, the Government of South Africa rejected Monsanto’s request to approve GM drought-tolerant corn because the company’s data was insufficient to demonstrate that the corn was actually drought tolerant. Also, while the famed Vitamin-A enriched GM “Golden Rice” is getting closer to market, it still contains less than 10% of an equivalent amount of beta-carotene in carrots. Meanwhile, groups in the Philippines argue that, “securing small farmers’ control over resources such as seed, appropriate technologies, water, and land is the real key to improving food production and eradicating hunger and malnutrition.”(1) Such complicated solutions do not, however, provide the opportunity to sell new products.

Companies are promising technological solutions to “feed the world” and halt climate change. Such techno-fix silver-bullets are compelling—they appear simple and elegant—but if we rely on corporations to develop the solutions to our problems, we will be buying our solutions, if they ever materialize. We can also ill afford to wait for the perfect technology to solve our problems. This approach invites dependence and inertia.

In the meantime, organic solutions are already in the ground. Further agroecological progress is hindered by a system that is set up to facilitate and promote the GM techno-fix rather than support locally adapted seed and farmer control. Faced with the moral imperative to take urgent action to stop climate change, we need to support the nimble and diverse solutions already available to us—solutions in the hands of farmers in Canada and around the world.


Lucy Sharratt is the Coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN). CBAN brings together 16 groups to research, monitor and raise awareness about issues relating to genetic engineering in food and farming. CBAN members include farmer associations, environmental and social justice organizations, and regional coalitions of grassroots groups. CBAN is a project on the shared platform of Tides Canada, a registered charity.


GRAIN, MASIPAG, & Stop Golden Rice! Network. (2018). Don’t get fooled again! Unmasking two decades of lies about Golden Rice. grain.org/article/entries/6067-don-t-get-fooled-again-unmasking-two-decades-of-lies-about-golden-rice

Setting Up a Spiral of GMO Contamination

in 2018/GMO Updates/Winter 2018

Legalizing “Low-Level Presence” of Unapproved GMOs

Lucy Sharratt

Contamination from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is a problem for some
crop types. For example, most organic grain farmers in the Prairies stopped growing canola after GM contamination of seed became widespread, and Canada’s flax industry is still recovering from GM contamination that closed export markets. Rather than taking all measures possible to stop contamination, the federal government has responded by proposing a policy that accepts it as unavoidable. This Low-Level Presence (LLP) policy asserts that the problem is not GM contamination, but rather our unwillingness to accept it.

What To Do About “Low-Level Presence” of Unapproved GMOs?

Agriculture Canada says, “Genetically modified (GM) grain that has not yet been approved by the importing country may unintentionally be present, at low levels, in grain shipments exported to that country. This is what is called low level presence (LLP).” For GMO-producing countries like Canada, acceptance of LLP by our trading partners is a priority.

LLP is contamination from GMOs that have not yet been assessed for safety by the national regulator in the importing country. An LLP policy would not apply to contamination from a GM crop that was assessed as unsafe or that was not yet approved in any jurisdiction. The industry calls this latter type of contamination “Adventitious Presence” or AP but the distinction only matters for moving an LLP policy forward. Until LLP policies are established, both AP and LLP are illegal in every country. The goal of a Low-Level Presence policy is to overturn this global norm of “zero-tolerance” for contamination.

Canada is the fourth biggest producer of GM crops in the world (GM corn, canola, soy, and a limited amount of GM alfalfa) and keeps exporting commodities contaminated with a Low Level Presence of GMOs that are not yet approved in our export markets, resulting in quarantined and rejected exports. CropLife Canada argues that acceptance of LLP will “provide stability” because “mixing can happen during cultivation, harvest, transportation, or storage of grain” and due to “modern, efficient bulk grain handling systems not designed for segregation of different grain segregation of different grain sources”.

Rather than implement controls and design grain segregation appropriately, the industry is asking national governments around the world to accept GMOs that they have not yet regulated. For example, Canada argues that other countries who had not evaluated the safety of GM flax should have accepted our GM flax contamination because Canadian regulators had approved it.

In 2011-2015, Agriculture Canada was proposing to make Canada the first country in the world to adopt an LLP policy, to lead by example. Canada’s progress on LLP is now more explicitly tied to progress internationally, with Canada acting as a leading global advocate. At the moment, Canada’s LLP policy proposal takes the form of a two-page policy model “designed to stimulate international discussions”.

Canada’s LLP Policy Model

While the industry also aims to establish LLP in seed, the current policy model from Agriculture Canada applies to whole grain, food, and feed products, not to seed for propagation, fruits and vegetables, or animals. The model proposes the following acceptable thresholds for LLP:

  • A 0.2% contamination threshold to address LLP resulting from dust (for example, GM corn dust in a soybean shipment)
  • A compliance threshold of 3% to address situations resulting from a foreign GM crop not yet approved in the importing country (for example, the GM flax that contaminated Canada’s flax exports to 36 countries).

Low-Level Presence would only be accepted if:

  • the GM crop (GM event) is approved for food use in at least one country, in accordance with Codex Guidelines.

Canada also outlines two additional criteria for the 3% compliance thresholds to apply:

  • Application for authorization of the GM crop was provided to the importing country;
  • Applicable LLP risk assessment(s) conducted by the importing country have determined, in advance, that the GM crop is unlikely to pose a risk.

In Canada, this means that LLP would be accepted if one other government has approved the GM crop, if Health Canada has received a request to approve the GM crop, and if our regulators have already concluded some type of “LLP risk assessment”. This last criteria is worth noting: the federal government is proposing to also establish some form of, as yet undefined, partial risk assessment for LLP. This would create two tiers of risk assessment for GMOs.

An LLP policy would mean that Canadians would be eating at least two types of legal GMOs: 1) those evaluated as safe for human consumption by Health Canada and 2) a small percent of those not yet approved but partially assessed by Health Canada and also approved by another government. The assumption is that full safety evaluation of a GM food is only needed if Canadians are eating more than 3%.

Assumptions-Based VS Science-Based Policy

A Low-Level Presence policy would put an end to claims of “science-based” regulation for GM food and environmental safety and replace it with an assumptions-based policy.

Why is 3% of LLP consumption safe but not 4% or 5%? The threshold is set by what the grain trade says it is willing to control in exports and accept in imports, not by what Health Canada and Environment Canada determines as safe. And we can only expect the LLP percentage to increase as the policy allows for contamination to more widely take hold. The industry is already asking for 4-5%.

An LLP policy rests on three major assumptions: contamination is inevitable; more GMOs will be developed and approved; and GMOs are safe or, more precisely, that GM foods not approved by Health Canada are safe to eat if another government says so and if Canadians don’t eat too much of them.

Low-Level Presence relies on a new precedent-setting pitch to Canadians and people around the world: that we don’t always need our national regulators to assess the safety of the GM food we eat.


LLP acceptance would allow GM contamination to gradually expand over time, because industry will have less incentive to control it. It would also be a self-fulfilling prophecy that could lead to the approval of many new GMOs such as GM wheat that otherwise face powerful opposition due to fears of trade disruption over contamination.

Organic and conventional farmers together rejected the fiction of “coexistence” with GM alfalfa. However, the government and industry continue to promote coexistence strategies, at the same time that they develop a policy to accept and legalize its failure.

Click for more resources and updates, including a link to Canada’s policy model.

Lucy Sharratt is the Coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN). CBAN brings together 16 groups to research, monitor and raise awareness about issues relating to genetic engineering in food and farming. CBAN members include farmer associations, environmental and social justice organizations, and regional coalitions of grassroots groups. CBAN is a project on the shared platform of Tides Canada, a registered charity.

 [1] Ian Affleck, CropLife Canada Update, Presentation to the Canadian Seed Trade Association Annual Meeting, Windsor, July 13, 2015
 [2] Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Low-Level Presence http://www.agr.gc.ca/eng/industry-markets-and-trade/agri-food-trade-issues/technical-trade-issues-in-agriculture/low-level-presence/?id=1384370877312
 [3] CropLife, Coexistence https://croplife.org/plant-biotechnology/stewardship-2/co-existence/
 [4] Ian Affleck, CropLife Canada Update, Presentation to the Canadian Seed Trade Association Annual Meeting, Windsor, July 13, 2015
 [5] Canadian Biotechnology Action Network and National Farmers Union, “The Canadian Seed Trade Association’s so-called ‘Coexistence Plan’ is a Gateway to GM Alfalfa Contamination: Commentary and Technical Paper” July 2013. report https://cban.ca/wp-content/uploads/gm-alfalfa-rebuttal-to-industry-coexistence-plan-1.pdf

Where is the GM Apple?

in 2017/Crop Production/Organic Community/Organic Standards/Winter 2017
CBAN Bulletin on genetically engineered food in Canada

Lucy Sharatt

In March 2015, Okanagan Specialty Fruits (OSF) got approval for its GM non-browning Golden Delicious and Granny Smith apples in both Canada and the United States. The US government also just announced approval of the GM Fuji, and a GM Gala is coming next. After having said in August 2016 that 1,000-1,200, 40-pound boxes of GM Golden Delicious apples would be sliced and sold in grocery stores in the western US,(1) the company now says it will test markets in the US early this year. But where will these apples come from?

Establishing orchards of genetically modified (GM) apples will take time and like other GM products that have been approved by our government, the new GM non-browning “Arctic” apple will be hard to track down. The GM apple is already particularly difficult to trace: OSF itself does not know exactly what to do with it because the market for the apple is unknown. But orchardists in BC, particularly organic growers, need to know where it is cultivated.

The company intends to plant 300,000 to 500,000 new trees each year but it’s unclear if this plan is for the US, Canada, or both countries.(2) OSF now says that based on their current planting contracts, they will plant over 870,000 trees between 2016 and 2018 that at maturity will produce over 30 million pounds of GM apples every year.(3) These numbers will be difficult to verify independently.

In an August 2016 letter to CBAN, Okanagan Specialty Fruits said that it will roll out the production and consumer test marketing in the US first: “OSF commercial orchards are currently planted in the United States. OSF consumer product test markets, to be conducted using Arctic® Golden apples from the first commercial harvest, will be conducted in the United States. These test markets will highlight a sliced product featuring the Arctic® brand. Most other parameters, including the Canadian market introduction, have yet to be determined.”

Because BC orchardists protested the field-testing of the GM apple, all field trials took place in the US instead of Canada, leaving maturing orchards in Washington and New York State. OSF President Neal Carter says there are already 70 acres at one ranch in Washington.(4)

The location of any GM apple trees is important information for organic growers. OSF told COABC that no GM apple orchards are planted in Canada and it may be “several years” before BC plantings occur.(5) However, in January 2016, the Ottawa Citizen reported that “So far, only a handful of Arctic Apple trees are being grown in Canada, in a greenhouse in Summerland, B.C., where Carter owns his orchard”.(6) Carter may not have planted GM fruit trees yet but could have a nursery where he is growing his own rootstock. The company also told COABC that when plantings in BC do take place, all trees and fruit will be under the direct oversight of OSF on either our own land or that of growers specifically contracted to produce fruit for us”.(7)

Despite the name, Okanagan Specialty Fruits is no longer a small BC company. In 2015, it was bought by biotechnology/synthetic biology company Intrexon, which also owns the GM salmon and a GM mosquito.

Ultimately, growers will need to work together to track the GM apple trees. COABC is asking growers to talk to their nurseries and report any information so that growers in BC can be aware if and when the GM trees hit the market. Some growers are already getting verbal pledges from their nurseries that they will never sell the GM trees.

OSF says “The Perfect Fruit Got Even Better” but consumers will decide if this is the case. Most major grocery chains in Canada have already responded to consumer concerns by saying that they have no plans to carry the GM apple in their stores. In the meantime, growers can also decide how far the GM apple tree gets.

Visit CBAN for updates and more information on the Arctic Apple

Lucy Sharatt is the coordinator of the Canadian Biotech- nology Action Network (CBAN). CBAN brings together 16 organizations that research, monitor and raise aware- ness about issues relating to genetic engineering in food and farming. CBAN members include farmer associa- tions, environmental and social justice organizations, and regional coalitions of grassroots groups. CBAN is a project on Tides Canada’s shared platform.


(1) Dan Wheat, “Company Forges Ahead with GM Apples.” Capital Press, August 11, 2016. http://www.capitalpress.com/Orchards/20160811/company-forges-ahead-with-gm-apples

(2) Laura Robin, “From Tree to Table: The Arctic Apple is Ready to Blossom.” Ottawa Citizen, January 22, 2016. http://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/from-tree-to-table-the-arctic-apple-is-ready- to-blossom

(3) Intrexon’s (XON) CEO Randal Kirk on Q3 2016 Results – Earnings Call Transcript, November 9, 2016. http://seekingalpha.com/article/4021879-intrexons-xon-ceo-randal-kirk-q3-2016-results-earnings-call-transcript?part=single

(4) Fresh Fruit Portal, “US: GM Arctic Apple Ready for First Test Marketing in Early 2017” October 3, 2016. http://www.freshfruitportal.com/news/2016/10/03/us-gm-arctic-apples-ready-for-first-test-marketing-in-early-2017/

(5) Email correspondence between Eva-Lena Lang, Certified Organic Association of BC and Jessica Brady, Okanagan Specialty Fruits, June 10, 2016; Letter from Neal Carter, Okanagan Specialty Fruits to Walter Makepeace, Certified Organic Associations of BC , November 1, 2016.

(6) Letter from Neal Carter, Okanagan Specialty Fruits to Lucy Sharratt, Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, August 22, 2016.

(7) Letter from Neal Carter, Okanagan Specialty Fruits to Walter Makepeace, Certified Organic Associations of BC , November 1, 2016.

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