Campus News

Published by Communications and Public Affairs 519 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338

News Release

November 30, 2006

Runaway GM Crops Can Pose Food-Safety Risks

Genetically modified crops can produce food with superior qualities, but they may also pose food-safety risks if they mix with other crops, says a University of Guelph plant agriculture professor.

“As pharmaceutical and industrial traits are introduced into crop plants, there will in some cases be a greater risk that Canadians will be directly affected by gene flow from crop to crop,” said Rene Van Acker, chair of the Department of Plant Agriculture, whose research focuses on managing the co-existence of GM and non-GM crops. “You shouldn’t have to worry about having pharmaceuticals in your morning cereal.”

Unlike in Europe, where there are strict regulations around confining GM crops, Canada is still developing regulations for novel trait confinement, said Van Acker. Novel plant traits include anything from types of pharmaceutical proteins to herbicide tolerance. “When you have unconfined release, traits can move and show up in unexpected places,” he said. “With some of the newer novel traits that may pose direct risks, a confined release system needs to be put in place.”

More than 80 per cent of canola grown in Canada and a high proportion of the country’s soybean and corn crops are genetically modified. Independent testing of certified canola seed lots from Western Canada revealed that the majority tested contained at least trace amounts of genetically engineered herbicide-tolerance traits. The unregulated movement of this genetic modification has prohibited organic farmers in the region from growing certified organic canola, said Van Acker.

“In Canada, unconfined release has so far been granted only to production traits such as herbicide tolerance, and these pose no quantifiable risk to human health or the environment,” said Van Acker. “But as the new waves of GM traits are being considered, including the production of inexpensive drugs in plants, we’ll have to look at ways to keep these plants on a tighter leash.”

Plant trait movement follows many different routes, including via wind or pollinators carrying pollen long distances. Genes also travel great distances when, knowingly or unknowingly, humans transport crop seeds from one location to another, including between continents, he said.

Van Acker, who’s the lead author of a report commissioned by the Canadian Wheat Board about novel trait movement and how it might affect crop management and eventually the environment, said the amount of mixing crops depends on the species.

“Some species are more promiscuous than others. Some, like canola, are highly outcrossing species that can also form effective feral (indigenous to roadside) populations. Other species, like soybeans, don’t outcross as much and aren’t able to produce effective feral populations.”

Whether or not transgenic movement is going to be a problem also depends on the specific novel trait, said Van Acker. “If the trait is deemed to pose no risk to human health or the environment, one could argue that it doesn’t matter if it moves around. But if a trait has a definite environmental or human health risk, then we need strict confinement. Crops containing such traits should perhaps not be grown outside.”

In Canada, there’s a separation between trait ownership and confinement responsibility, he said. This can pose legal problems because “if there’s trait movement outside of the confinement, it’s not clear who’s responsible for that trait movement and who holds the liability.”

Rene Van Acker
Department of Plant Agriculture
519-824-4120, Ext. 53386, or

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, 519 824- 4120, Ext. 53338, or Rachelle Cooper, Ext. 56982.

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