Frequently Asked Questions

 

What is Biotechnology?

What are the Applications of Biotechnology to Food?

How does Biotechnology Work?

What are Canadians Doing in Agricultural Biotechnology?

What Genetically Altered Foods are Approved in Canada?

How are Genetically Modified Foods Regulated?

What are the Major Issues in Agbiotech?

What is the Debate about Genetically Engineered Milk?

What are the Ethical and Moral Issues Underlying Biotechnology?

What about Patents and Genetic Engineering in Canada?

 

WHAT IS BIOTECHNOLOGY?

Biotechnology is the use of living organisms, or their parts, for the production of goods and services (Canadian Environmental Protection Act). 

Often you will encounter examples to explain biotechnology such as, cultured yeast activity in wine making or in bread baking. In agriculture, selective breeding of plants and animals has been practiced by all the worlds' cultural groups for centuries. These traditional techniques were sometimes hit-and-miss affairs and the selection of desired traits took several generations to develop. Limitations in sexual compatibility also prevented cross-fertilization between species. 

Scientific discoveries in the last several decades have allowed for a more precise introduction, enhancement or deletion of particular characteristics at the level of the gene. Genes are functional units of a molecule called DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). Genetic information is contained in the DNA. The process called genetic engineering or the application of recombinant DNA technology involves the insertion of a gene or genes from one species to another species. This method of gene transfer enabling the crossing of species barriers was not previously possible using traditional methods of plant or animal breeding. This is sometimes referred to as the new biotechnology. 

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WHAT ARE THE APPLICATIONS OF BIOTECHNOLOGY TO FOOD?

Genetic modification processes are typically employed to realize benefits to the producer (e.g., to lower production costs by increasing resistance to pests) or to the consumer (e.g., to have better flavours or nutritional content). Some of the applications include the following: 
  • Cheese-making involves the action of enzymes from microbes. Enzymes are proteins which promote specific chemical reactions. Chymosin from calves' stomachs is an example of an enzyme which promotes curdling of milk for cheese production. The integration of the gene for chymosin into a yeast allows for the production of chymosin in commercial quantities. This chymosin is then introduced into the microbes used in the production of different kinds of cheese.
  • Potatoes have been engineered for pest resistance to the Colorado potato beetle. Genes from a soil bacterium (Bacillus thuringiensis, or B.t.) which produces its own insecticide to protect it naturally against insects have been introduced into potatoes, providing these plants with some immunity to its specific insect pests. Known as the New Leaf potato, it is now on grocery store shelves.
  • Tomatoes have been genetically altered to prolong their ability to ripen on the vine and have a longer shelf life by delaying the softening process. A group of enzymes called pectinases break down pectin, which is a major component of cell walls. This results in the conversion of solid plant tissue into softer tissue during the ripening process. Scientists modified the tomato's genetic structure so that the gene promoting the ripening process is inactivated. The Flavr-Savr tomato was produced by the American company, Calgene, and was the first genetically modified produce item to reach grocery shelves. It became available for sale in 1994 in the U.S., and was approved for sale in Canada in 1995. Not a commercial success, the Flavr-Savr is not currently available.
  • Oilseed rape and canola have been modified to improve their oil profile. Transgenic canola has been developed to contain a greater proportion of polyunsaturated fatty acids than traditional vegetable oils.
  • Bovine somatotropine (BST) is a growth hormone produced naturally by cows. A cow's milk yield can be increased when it is supplied with additional BST. The gene responsible for milk production was introduced into bacteria to allow these bacteria to produce the hormone in commercial quantities. This engineered hormone is called rBST (recombinant bovine somatotropine). rBST is used in the United States but has not been approved for use in Canada.
  • Crops have been engineered for resistance to herbicides. Herbicides have played a major role in decreasing or eliminating weeds but they have also been constrained by damage to the crops themselves. Certain soil bacteria contain genes which provide resistance to particular herbicides. The transfer of these genes into some crop plants has conferred specific resistance to particular herbicides. Herbicide-resistant crops include canola, corn, alfalfa, wheat and soy.
  • Salmon, genetically modified for increased growth rates, are being developed in various laboratories around the world, including Canada. Transgenic salmon have been shown to exhibit growth rates 30 to 40 times that of non-modified salmon. Researchers are also working on other shellfish and fish products. 
As noted, these products have been developed to realize benefits for producers and consumers. At the same time, questions have also been raised about the risks these developments entail. See, for example, the Issues FAQ, on this page and The Citizen's Guide to Biotechnology and Anne Clark's paper on environmental risk in our Education section. 

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HOW DOES BIOTECHNOLOGY WORK?

Biotechnology, through genetic engineering, works directly with the genetic material of a cell. If we examined a cell under a high-powered microscope, we would see long, thread-like structures called chromosomes. These chromosomes, composed of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), are organized into sections called genes. Genes control the production of particular proteins, and proteins, in turn, determine the characteristics of an organism. In some cases, a gene may govern one particular trait, such as an organism's resistance to disease, while in other cases, characteristics may be determined by many genes. It was the understanding of DNA that paved the way for genetic engineering. The knowledge gained has allowed researchers to transfer genes between the cells of different organisms. 

The actual transfer of a gene is carried out in a complex "cut and paste" procedure. Specialized enzymes are used to "cut" or remove a specific gene from one organism's DNA, and then to "paste" or slice that gene back into the DNA of another organism. 

In plants, since they have tough outer walls, the delivery of genes into the plant cells is a little more challenging. There ae two main techniques by which this process is carried out. 

The first of these involves the use of a modified species of bacterium called Agrobacterium. In nature, the Agrobacterium invades a plant, then infects it with a segment of its own DNA that 'codes' for the development of crown gall disease. This DNA is incorporated into the plant's DNA and the plant becomes diseased with crown gall. 

When using Agrobacterium to genetically modify plants, these disease-causing parts of the Agrobacterium's DNA are removed. They are replaced with genes that carry desired characteristics (such as improved nutritional value) by the cut and paste procedure. Agrobacterium , therefore, is a convenient delivery system by which new characteristics can be passed on to plants. 

The second technique used to deliver genetically engineered DNA into plants is the DNA "particle gun" method. Tiny metal particles coated with genes with desired characteristics are put into a particle gun and fired directly into plant cells. These genes are incorporated into the plant cells' DNA, and the cells are then grown into full plants. The new characteristic is then present in the whole plant. 

Source: Biotechnology in Agriculture and Agri-Food. Canadian Food Inspection Agency. http://www.cfia-acia.agr.ca. 

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WHAT ARE CANADIANS DOING IN AGRICULTURAL BIOTECHNOLOGY?

In May 1983, the Canadian government announced biotechnology, including genetic engineering, to be a national priority for economic development. Agriculture, the resource industries, and health care are the areas where researchers are concentrating strategic applications of the new technology. 

Of the more than 224 biotechnology firms in the country, most are located in Ontario and Quebec, with British Columbia placing third. Over 26% of biotechnology companies in Canada are related to agricultural biotechnology, as compared to only 5% in the US. Saskatchewan, however, leads in agricultural biotechnology with over 700 field trials of genetically altered plants now being conducted. The most widely tested crops are canola, corn, potatoes, and alfalfa. 

In fact, Canada has been racing ahead in the development of herbicide resistant crops. In 1988, the first fourteen tests of transgenic, or genetically engineered crops, were conducted in Canada. By 1994, over 700 field tests of transgenic plants were underway. Of these, over 600 involved transgenic varieties of the canola oilseed plant. In 1996, the industry saw 14 genetically modified crops, in 747 field tests, by about 20 companies. (Ernst & Young, Canadian Biotech, 1997). 

In 1995, canola seeds, genetically modified to be herbicide resistant were approved for commercial planting. Since that time applications for the release of genetically modified flax, corn, potatoes, wheat, tomatoes, and squash have been made to the federal government. Over 1,000 patents have been registered for new uses of genetically altered canola. 

Micropropagation, a technique to mass produce identical plants; diagnostics, a means of detecting plant and animal diseases; biofertilizers, the use of bacteria to fertilize crops; and biopesticides, which is the use of fungi or natural predators to protect crops from pests, are some of the other methods of changing crop production. 

[Sources: Ernst and Young, 1997; Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy, 1995] 

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WHAT GENETICALLY ALTERED FOODS ARE APPROVED IN CANADA?

Plants with Novel Traits: In the case of genetically engineered plants, there have been over 4,000 field trials since 1988. Food safety approval has been received by Health Canada on 36 plants with novel traits including canola, corn, tomato, potato, soybean, cottonseed and squash. General environmental releases have been granted for 31 plants with novel traits, including canola, corn, potato, soybean, wheat, and flax, (corn is not subject to variety registration). Of these, nine have been registered as crop varieties. 

Novel Feeds: There have been 31 approvals of plants with novel traits to be used as livestock feed. They  include canola, corn, potatoes, soybeans and cotton. 

Some examples of the kinds of research currently being undertaken include: increasing unsaturated fat content of corn, soybean and canola plants; changing milk products to remove lactose; increasing the lysine content of rice; and increasing tolerance of plants to extreme dry or cold climates etc. 

Two tomato strains have been approved for sale in Canada but have not yet entered the marketplace. The New Leaf potato, genetically altered to resist the Colorado potato beetle, was approved for food use in 1995 and is now on grocery store shelves. 

[Source: Health Canada: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/datahpb/datafood/english/pub/ofb/decis96e.htm 
Canadian Food Inspection Agency:http://www.cfia-acia.agr.ca/english/ppc/biotech/statuse.html] 
 

(While this list is not all that long, it is said that 60% of processed foods on the market contain soy in some form, even if it is only lecithin extracted from soy. The average diet is extremely high in processed, packaged food, which means most of us are already eating genetically modified foods on a regular basis). 
  
 

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HOW ARE GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOODS REGULATED IN CANADA?

  • The safety of food is overseen by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Health Canada.
  • Labelling is voluntary in Canada rather than mandatory.
In Canada, the application of biotechnology is generally regarded as an extension of existing breeding techniques. As a result, the existing regulatory framework applied to traditional food products is also seen to be suitable for biotechnology products. For example, a tomato that has been genetically engineered for longer shelf life is regarded as no different from a non-modified tomato (that is, they are seen to be "substantially equivalent") so both are regulated in the same way. 

Novel foods or genetically altered crops must pass a safety assessment before entering the market. However, because these product applications are seen to be substantially no different from their traditional counterparts, Canada has not required the labelling of these genetically modified products. The government allows "voluntary labelling" at this point. That is, if a company were interested in identifying its product as resulting from genetic modification, it may do so. The first genetically modified foods sold in the United Kingdom (a tomato paste and a vegetarian cheese) were voluntarily labelled by the supermarket chains that stocked the products. 

Issues:

There are two points of view on the issue of regulation. There are those who see the application of genetic engineering as simply extending traditional agricultural practices. Canada falls in this category. On the other hand, others regard these modification processes as fundamentally different from previously used agricultural techniques. Proponents of this second view suggest that stricter regulation and risk assessment efforts are required. This view also supports mandatory labelling of products. 

The issue of labelling is also one that interests many consumers. [SEE Regulation and Labelling in this site for further discussion, or go to the Consumers' Association of Canada ]. Some food producers maintain there is no scientific evidence that using genetic modification techniques per se change the food composition in a meaningful way. Codex Alimentarius, an international body overseeing food standards, has also agreed that mandatory labelling is only needed when significant differences can be shown in food as a result of genetic modification. 

Which Agencies are involved in regulation of food?

Agriculture Canada, Health Canada, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency are all involved in tests, applications and approvals of genetically modified crops and foods. Any crop or food falling outside the jurisdiction of Agriculture or Health Canada will be regulated under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. 

Since biotechnology is a global industry, there is interest in harmonizing regulatory practices across countries. To compete internationally, Canada will want to ensure our regulations do not hinder trade. At the same time, many Canadians want labelling on these products as part of their right to choose. [Source: Consumers' Association of Canada] 

At the present time, the organic agricultural industry has decided to classify genetically modified foods as not suitable for organic certification. So, for example, by purchasing organically certified soy products, the consumer is assured the product does not contain genetically altered ingredients. [Source: Canadian Organic Industry http://www.gks.com/coab] 

For more on this topic go to Regulation & Labelling. 

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WHAT ARE THE MAJOR ISSUES IN AGRICULTURAL BIOTECHNOLOGY?

Critics of agricultural biotechnology, or genetically modified field crops have these concerns: 
  • we could end up creating new super weeds or hyper-resistant pests; 
  • we may destroy or reduce ecological biodiversity 
  • there could be damage to small farm incomes 
  • global food systems could be disrupted 
  • jump from the pesticide treadmill onto the genetic "fix it" treadmill 
  • we will continue reliance on monoculture practices 
  • fail to develop truly sustainable agricultural practices 
  • Unforeseen environmental problems could result from releasing genetically modified plants 
  • Multinational companies will patent and control seed stocks of the world 
Critics ask: what do we know about transgenic crops crossing with wild varieties? Do we know how genetic diversity might be affected should transgenic plants transfer genes to traditional varieties? They also raise questions about the risks to human health. 

Proponents of agricultural biotechnology argue that: 

  • These novel plants will result in less usage of herbicides and chemicals 
  • Plant varieties with higher yields can be developed 
  • Using biotechnology applications could lead to more sustainable agricultural practices 
  • The nutritional content of foods can be increased or improved (e.g., canola oil with less saturated fats) 
  • More food products will be more readily available to the consumer. 
  • Agricultural biotechnology creates wealth. 
  • The world hunger crisis can be addressed. 
  • Risks are manageable. 
Proponents ask: should we compromise our ability to compete in the global market by not making use of the tools already available to us? They also argue that genetically altered crops are regulated by stringent government safety assessments and that hazards to the environment are minimal. 

Reference source: Biotechnology Unzipped by Eric Grace and Citizen's Guide to Biotechnology, Canadian Institiute of Environmental Law and Policy, Toronto; CIELAP@Web.apc.org). 

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WHAT IS THE DEBATE ABOUT GENETICALLY ENGINEERED MILK?

Monsanto Corporation has developed a recombinant form of bovine growth hormone, rBGH, which can be injected into cows to increase milk production by 10 to 24 percent. In the US, this hormone is legal and used by some sectors of the dairy industry. Estimated profits to Monsanto from rBGH sales is US $300 to $500 million in the US alone. 

In Canada, the hormone has not been approved by Health Canada and the evaluation has been ongoing. Health Canada has requested additional information from Monsanto. On January 14, 1999 Canada announced that we will not allow the sale of Bovine Growth Hormone in this country. The hormone was refused for reasons of animal safety and welfare. 

Bovine growth hormone became legal in the US in February, 1994. The U.S. does not require labelling because it considers milk from cows treated with rBGH to be as safe as milk from untreated cows. Dairy products originating in the US for sale in Canada may come from cows treated with the drug, however there is no way to positively identify these products. 

Proponents of Bovine Growth Hormone argue: 

  • the milk from treated cows is safe 
  • that it is safe for animal health 
  • that consumers are more interested in fat content and prices 
Critics of Bovine Growth Hormone argue: 
  • there is no benefit to the consumer, as there is no milk shortage 
  • the drug causes sickness in the animals treated, such as inflammation of the mammary glands, so they are given antibiotics which may pass into the milk 
  • the animal is not able to graze and must be confined 
  • the animal must be fed high energy grains which makes more demands on agricultural lands 
  • that science experts disagree over the safety 
  • small farms may be put out of business (BGH is used more by large operations) 
[Sources: Canadian Food Inspection Agency ; Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy] 


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WHAT ARE THE ETHICAL AND MORAL ISSUES UNDERLYING BIOTECHNOLOGY?

Genetic engineering may raise moral and ethical dilemmas for individuals and society. Some of the questions people ask are: 
  • do we feel it is okay to redirect the basic coding or genetic blueprint of life forms? 
  • how comfortable are we redesigning nature? 
  • is it right to own genetic material; do we allow patenting of higher life forms? 
  • do we want monopolies and patents on agricultural food products? 
  • should animals be used to make pharmaceuticals drugs? 
  • who will be allowed to own these novel plants and animals? 
  • when a plant receives an animal gene, does a vegetarian need to know about it? 
  • do we want private companies, like insurance companies, to have access to genetic info? 
  • in the event of unlikely or unforseen circumstances, such as allergenic or toxic reactions in novel foods, who will be responsible? - (the regulator, industry, the retailer?) 

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WHAT ABOUT PATENTS AND GENETIC ENGINEERING IN CANADA?

A patent is a reward from government or society to the maker of a product or invention. The agreement lasts between 15 and 20 years and gives the inventor the exclusive right to profit from the invention. Patent law was written prior to the advent of biotechnology and was not meant to govern living organisms. However, it is considered necessary to promote new research in the area and protect the innovator. 

In Canada, higher life forms are not considered patentable, unlike the United States and Japan where mice and pigs have been patented by private industry since the late 1980's. Human genes have also been patented. Since 1982,( in Canada), patents have been available for all types of micro-organisms including those used in the food industry for making cheeses and for viruses and bacteria in the medical profession. Since biotechnology is a global industry, Canada is now required by GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) to develop and allow patenting of plants over the next five to fifteen years. Genes and DNA sequences currently fall into the category of ‘composition of matter ' under Canadian law. 

In agricultural biotechnology the issue of plant patents is being debated. Farmers can be adversely affected by plant patent privileges. Under these laws, farmers are required to purchase new seed stock each year and prohibited from saving genetically engineered seeds from their crop for replanting the next year. In developing countries, being forced to purchase seeds each year may increase economic hardship. 

[For more information on patenting see the Rural Advancement Foundation International in the Weblinks section under sites with Public Interest Perspectives] 

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modified: March 3, 1999