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genetic engineering

Gene Editing: The End of GMOs?

in 2020/Current Issue/Fall 2020/GMO Updates/Organic Standards

Lucy Sharratt

There is a lot of excitement about “gene editing,” or genome editing, in the media and research community. In the farm press, genome editing techniques are being widely described as precise and, in some cases, non-GMO. Neither is correct.

Genome editing techniques can be used to alter the genetic material of plants, animals, and other organisms. They aim to insert, delete, or otherwise change a DNA sequence at a specific, targeted site in the genome. Genome editing techniques are a type of genetic engineering, resulting in the creation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The techniques are powerful and could lead to the development of more genetically modified (GM) crop plants, and even GM farm animals. However, the hype surrounding genome editing is similar to what was seen with first-generation genetic engineering. Most news stories about new products are actually about experiments in very early stages, which may never lead to new foods on the market.

Just as with first-generation genetic engineering, genome editing techniques are moving quickly in the lab to create new GM foods, even while our knowledge about how genomes work remains incomplete. The techniques are powerful and speedy, but can be imprecise and lead to unexpected consequences.

The genome is the entire set of genetic material in an organism, including DNA.

What is Genome Editing?

Genome editing most often uses DNA “cutters” that are guided to a location within an organism’s DNA and used to cut the DNA. This cut DNA is then repaired by the cell’s own repair mechanism, which creates changes or “edits” to the organism. The most frequently used genome editing technique is called CRISPR, but other techniques follow similar principles.

First-generation genetic engineering techniques insert genes at random locations. These genes then permanently become part of the host organism’s genome, creating new DNA sequences. In contrast, new genome editing techniques insert genetic material that is then guided to a specific target site to perform “edits.” This means that, with genome editing, the inserted genetic material makes changes to the genome but does not necessarily have to become incorporated into the resulting GMO and can be bred out. This means that not all genome-edited GMOs are transgenic.

This also means that, unlike all first-generation GMOs, not all genome-edited GMOs are transgenic (have foreign DNA). The ability to create non-transgenic organisms is often stressed by the biotechnology industry as an advantage to using genome editing but, as discussed below, whether or not a GMO is transgenic is not the chief concern about genetic engineering.

There is one genome-edited organism on the market in Canada: an herbicide tolerant canola from the company Cibus (Falco brand). This GM canola, like all other GMOs, is prohibited in organic farming and excluded from “Non-GMO Project” verification. However, despite also being regulated as GM in Europe, the company Cibus still sometimes refers to this non-transgenic canola as “non-GMO.” This one example provides a glimpse into how the biotechnology industry would like to shape the regulation and public perception of genome editing to avoid the GMO controversy.

Unexpected and Unpredictable Effects

Genome editing can be imprecise, and cause unexpected and unpredictable effects. Many studies have now shown that genome editing can create genetic errors, such as “off-target” and “on-target” effects:

  • Genome editing techniques, such as the CRISPR-Cas9 system, can create unintended changes to genes that were not the target of the editing system. These are called “off-target effects.”
  • Genome editing can also result in unintended “on-target effects,” which occur when a technique succeeds in making the intended change at the target location, but also leads to other unexpected outcomes.
  • Genome editing can inadvertently cause extensive deletions and complex re-arrangements of DNA.
  • Unwanted DNA can unexpectedly integrate into the host organism during the genome editing process. For example, foreign DNA was unexpectedly found in genome-edited hornless cows.

Despite these many potential impacts, there are no standard protocols yet to detect off-target and on-target effects of genome editing.

Sometimes intended changes that are created by genome editing techniques are described as “mutations,” because only very small parts of DNA are altered and no novel genes have been intentionally introduced. However, even small changes in a DNA sequence can have big effects.

The functioning of genes is coordinated by a complex regulatory network that is still poorly understood. This means that it is not possible to predict the nature and consequences of all the interactions between altered genetic material and other genes within an organism. For example, one small genetic change can impact an organism’s ability to express or suppress other genes.

An End to GMO Regulation?

Despite these risks, a number of researchers and companies are arguing that genome editing should be less regulated than first-generation genetic engineering, or not regulated at all.

It is commonly argued that regulation is an obstacle to innovation. In relation to genome-edited animals, the argument has been made that mandatory government safety assessment “makes no economic sense.”1 Instead, industry argues that the process by which new plants and animals are created should be irrelevant to safety considerations. This is why US government proposals to assess the safety of all genome-edited animals were called “insane” by one of the developers of genome-edited hornless cows2—three years before the cows were found by US government scientists to contain unexpected foreign DNA.

New genome editing techniques will challenge regulators with new traits and processes, with increasing complexity and ongoing uncertainty. Rather than assume their safety, these new technologies need to be met with precaution and increased independent scrutiny.

Even more fundamentally, our government must consider the question of social worth before
approving products of genetic engineering. Without consulting Canadian farmers, for example, companies can commercialize new GM products (such as glyphosate-tolerant alfalfa) that have few benefits but can, on the contrary, pose serious risks to farming systems and the environment.

For references and for more information and discussion about genome editing, read CBAN’s new report, “Genome Editing in Food and Farming: Risks and Unexpected Consequences.” The report and an introductory factsheet are available online.

For updates or to find out more, visit CBAN online.


Lucy Sharratt is the Coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN). CBAN brings together 16 groups (cban.ca/about-us/members/) 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 MakeWay’s shared platform.

Featured image: Canola in bloom. Credit: Bellingen2454 (CC)

References
See CBAN’s report at cban.ca/GenomeEditingReport2020
Maxmen, A. (2017). Gene-edited animals face US regulatory crackdown. Nature (News).

Why Your Food Choices Matter

in 2020/Climate Change/GMO Updates/Grow Organic/Marketing/Organic Community/Organic Standards/Spring 2020

CBAN’s New Public Education Tool to Support the Organic Solution

Lucy Sharratt

The gravity and gathering speed of the global climate and biodiversity crises threaten to paralyze many people who want to make meaningful change but don’t know where to start. Thankfully, organic farmers are already implementing concrete solutions that everyone can support. In the face of climate emergency, organic farmers show us what is possible.

That’s why, at the beginning of this year, the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) started a new public education program to support organic farming. It centres around a new pamphlet called “Why Your Food Choices Matter,” which is designed for farmers to hand out at farm stands, farmers’ market tables, or in CSA boxes, and for distribution at health food stores and local events. The goal is to help people commit, or re-commit, to making organic food choices, and to buying locally and directly from farmers where possible.

In Canada and around the world, organic farmers are at the forefront of building real and lasting solutions to the climate and biodiversity crises. This is a global movement that relies on the support of an informed non-farming public. In this context, individual food choices are more important than ever because they support farmers who are, together, making profound change. At a time of ecological crisis, we are encouraging consumers to take heart from farmers who are already growing food for a better future.

Even consumers who are already making one or more ecological food choices need information to help them continue, and to help them share information with their family and friends. CBAN’s pamphlet says, “your food choices can help protect our environment, support your health, and build a better future for food and farming,” and it describes organic farming. We know this information is necessary because people still ask us if organic is non-genetically modified (GM). They also ask us if organic is sustainable, and if they can trust the organic label. The pamphlet is actually an update of a similar tool launched 10 years ago. People clearly still need this information.

In fact, this information is an important counterpoint to a new highly-organized and well-funded public relations campaign designed to win public trust or “social license” for conventional agriculture practices, including the use of pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Coordinated by the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity and Farm & Food Care, the campaign is tracking public opinion and asking farmers to speak up to counter consumer mistrust.

However, this campaign does not change the reality that, as described in “Why Your Food Choices Matter,” most of the food we eat is produced through a long chain of steps in a global system that contributes to the climate crisis, puts harmful toxins into our environment, and removes decision-making from farmers and consumers. This global food system is dominated by a few large companies that control the markets for seeds, pesticides, and other technologies, as well as much of the distribution and sale of food in our communities. But consumers don’t have to surrender to this reality—they can choose an organic path forward, with local farmers.

According to the International Panel on Climate Change, agricultural production contributes approximately 12% of human greenhouse gas emissions. This includes emissions of nitrous oxide from synthetic fertilizers and methane from livestock production. When we add emissions from other related activities in our global food system, such as food production, land-use changes such as clearing forests to make way for farming, manufacturing pesticides and fertilizers, and processing, packaging, and transporting food, this number increases to 21%-37% of all global emissions caused by human activities. Synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers are both petrochemical products, made from fossil fuels.

Canadians are increasingly becoming more aware about the use of synthetic pesticides in farming, or at least the use of glyphosate-based herbicides. For many consumers, glyphosate is a concern that is also associated with the use of genetically modified seeds. This connection is correct because almost all the GM seeds sold in Canada are engineered to be herbicide tolerant, and most of these are glyphosate tolerant. CBAN’s research has found that herbicide sales in Canada have increased by 199% since the introduction of GM crops (1994-2016).

However, glyphosate formulations are only one among many different types of synthetic herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides used to produce the majority of food on the market. In fact, the emergence of glyphosate-resistant weeds has meant that companies have started shifting their sales from glyphosate-tolerant GM crops to 2,4-D- and dicamba-tolerant GM crops.

Corporate consolidation is a defining feature of our global food system. Four companies control over half of both the global seed and pesticide markets. These same top companies also control the sales of genetically engineered seeds. For example, Bayer is now the largest seed company, the second largest pesticide company, and the largest seller of genetically engineered seed in the world. Following its acquisition of Monsanto, Bayer owns 33% of the global seed market and 23% of the global pesticides market.

This high level of corporate concentration in seeds and pesticides is unprecedented, and it means higher prices for farmers, fewer choices, and decreased seed diversity.  These inputs have environmental costs, and also take money out of farmers’ pockets. In 2018, Canadian farmers spent 94% of their gross farm income on farm inputs. This is why the National Farmers Union (NFU) has just launched a new discussion about how the farm crisis and the climate crisis are linked.

The NFU says, “The solutions to the farm crisis and the climate crisis are largely the same: reduce dependence on high-emission petro-industrial farm inputs, and rely more on ecological cycles, energy from the sun, and the knowledge and wisdom of farm families.” This conversation is in full swing due to a new alliance called Farmers for Climate Solutions, which is creating space for farmers to share stories about climate impacts, practical solutions and policy recommendations.

Organic farming provides a path forward, but encouraging organic consumption alone is not sufficient. This is why CBAN’s pamphlet encourages a range of complementary consumer food choices. For example, we know that small independent food manufacturers and stores are facing pressure in a marketplace dominated by the big grocery chains. Five grocery companies (Loblaw, Sobeys/Safeway, Costco, Metro, and Walmart) control 80% of the food retail market in Canada. This is why we also emphasize the importance of buying directly from farmers, and from local and independent businesses.

Along with all these issues, consumer concern over genetic engineering (genetic modification or GM) is also driving support to organics. New techniques of gene editing are the latest way that genetic engineering is being sold as the future of farming. However, the connection between the two issues of genetic engineering and organics is about more than just an option to buy non-GM via organics.

Genetic engineering and organics offer two different visions for farming, and two different visions for problem solving. Organic farmers reject GM seeds and GM animals as unnecessary and risky. Instead, organics values the diversity and bounty that nature already offers, and often replaces such corporate products with natural systems and human labour. This is why emerging and powerful new genetic engineering techniques such as gene editing will fail to provide the solutions needed. The real solutions are in the hands of organic farmers, and it is time to mobilize consumers to more fully support farmers’ work.

You can view the pamphlet “Why Your Food Choices Matter,” along with references for the information, and order your copies at cban.ca/orderpamphlets. You can also contact us at cban.ca/contact or call Lucy at 902.209.4906.

Copies are available free of charge, though your donations to help support printing and postage are gratefully accepted (and tax-deductible).


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.

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.

cban.ca


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.

References:

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

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.

References

(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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