Frequently Asked Questions
WHAT IS BIOTECHNOLOGY?
Biotechnology is the use of living organisms, or their parts, for
the production of goods and services (Canadian Environmental Protection
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
WHAT ARE THE APPLICATIONS OF BIOTECHNOLOGY TO
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:
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
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
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.
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
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]
WHAT GENETICALLY ALTERED FOODS ARE APPROVED
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
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).
HOW ARE GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOODS REGULATED
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.
The safety of food is overseen by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency
and Health Canada.
Labelling is voluntary in Canada rather than mandatory.
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.
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
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
WHAT ARE THE MAJOR ISSUES IN AGRICULTURAL BIOTECHNOLOGY?
Critics of agricultural biotechnology, or genetically modified field
crops have these concerns:
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.
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
Multinational companies will patent and control seed stocks of the world
Proponents of agricultural biotechnology argue that:
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.
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
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.
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).
WHAT IS THE DEBATE ABOUT GENETICALLY ENGINEERED
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:
Critics 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
[Sources: Canadian Food Inspection Agency ; Canadian Institute for Environmental
Law and Policy]
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
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
that science experts disagree over the safety
small farms may be put out of business (BGH is used more by large operations)
WHAT ARE THE ETHICAL AND MORAL ISSUES UNDERLYING
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
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
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?)
WHAT ABOUT PATENTS AND GENETIC ENGINEERING IN
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
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