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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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