Frequently Asked Questions
- What is the Council for Biotechnology Information?
- Who makes up CBI Canada?
- Where does CBI work?
- What is plant biotechnology?
- What are some examples of plant biotech products that are now on the market?
- How widespread are these crops?
- Are these products safe for my family and me?
- Can a biotech food contain a gene to which I'm allergic?
- Who ensures the safety of biotech foods?
- Are biotech foods or ingredients labeled in Canada?
The Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI) is a coalition of six of the world's leading plant biotechnology companies. Its mission is to improve understanding and acceptance of biotechnology by providing balanced, science-based information through a variety of communication channels. CBI was founded in April of 2000.
CBI operates on a NAFTA basis, with offices in Canada, Mexico and the United States. CBI also has sister biotech organisations in Africa, Australia/New Zealand, Brazil, the Caribbean, Europe and Japan.
Biotechnology, as a general term, covers a broad range of scientific activities used in many sectors, such as food, health and agriculture. It involves the use of living organisms or parts of living organisms to provide new methods of production and the making of new products.1
Plant biotechnology is a tool to make seeds with enhanced qualities, allowing farmers to grow plants that are more resistant to pests, tolerant of herbicides and more productive. It is used to identify a beneficial trait such as taste or hardiness, and incorporate that trait into a plant.
Plant biotechnology is part of a continuum — a refinement of genetic enhancement techniques begun thousands of years ago with the domestication of wild plants. 19th century researchers made a major step forward when they learned how to crossbreed plants to add new traits such as colour. This led to the development of hybrids a half-century ago — one of the great achievements of modern agriculture.
The tools of biotechnology allow researchers to achieve the same kind of genetic exchange, but more precisely — eliminating the need to crossbreed plants for several generations to breed in desired qualities and breed out those qualities that are unwanted. The next generation of research is working on products with consumer benefits such as non-browning apples, lycopene-enhanced tomatoes, allergen-free peanuts and calcium-rich carrots.
Currently, more than 100 biotech crops have been approved for commercial use in Canada, most recently virus-resistant papaya and herbicide-tolerant sugar beets.2
Worldwide, soybeans, corn, cotton, canola, papaya, squash and alfalfa accounted for all the biotechnology crops grown in 2007.3 All of these crops provide agronomic (agricultural) benefits, which farmers have embraced because they can boost yields and reduce spraying. The management system allows them to reduce tilling which conserves topsoil and saves fuel.4
A 2000 study by the Canola Council of Canada quantified the benefits. For example, herbicide tolerant canola helped farmers reduce their annual costs by $15 an acre, which totals $735 million across 49 million acres.5
The next wave of biotech crops in development will produce food that is more nutritious and healthful, including peanuts, wheat and rice with potential allergens removed.
Plant biotechnology is also being used to develop foods with health benefits such as tomatoes with increased lycopene, which has been linked to reduced risk of prostate and digestive tract cancer.6
Since 1996, when biotech crops such as corn and soybeans were first grown commercially, the adoption of plant biotechnology has been rapid.7 In Canada, 65 percent of all corn, 65 percent of soybean acres,8 and 99 percent of all canola acres are herbicide-tolerant or insect-resistant.
Biotech soybeans, corn, cotton and canola accounted for more than 99 percent of worldwide biotechnology crops in 2007.9
In 2007, worldwide plantings of biotech crops totaled 114.3 hectares in 23 countries according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA)
Biotech foods on the market today are as safe as those developed through conventional breeding.10 In the 12 years since the first biotech food product came on the market, there hasn't been a single documented case of an illness caused by biotech foods.11 Hundreds of studies have confirmed the safety of biotech crops and food, including a 15-year, $64 million study by the European Commission that involved more than 400 research teams on 81 projects.
Scientific organisations and regulatory agencies around the world have confirmed the safety of biotech foods, including the United Nations' World Health Organisation (WHO) and Food and Agriculture Organisation, and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society of London, national academies in China, Brazil, India and Mexico, and other international scientific groups. More than 3,300 scientists, including three Nobel Prize winners, have signed a statement in support of biotechnology. In Canada, Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency are among Canadian agencies and organisations committed to the safe and regulated introduction of biotech foods.
Ensuring that biotech foods don't trigger allergies is an important part of the regulatory approval process. Since about 90 percent of food allergies are caused by a handful of foods,12 the potential for causing allergies can be easily reduced by not using genetic material from these products. In addition, any genetic material that is used is carefully studied to see if it has anything in common with known allergens. Then, once it's inserted into a plant, the plant is further studied to see if new allergens are created.
Other research is underway to use biotechnology to remove allergens from foods such as peanuts and wheat.13
In Canada, the safety of biotech food is overseen by two separate agencies:
- The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) regulates the introduction of biotech plants, that is plants with novel traits (PNTs) in Canada. This process involves several years and stages of review, from initial screening to field testing to experimental-use permits until final approval.
- CFIA evaluates the safety of PNTs with respect to human and animal health and safety to the environment.
- Health Canada assesses the safety of all genetically-modified and other novel foods proposed for sale in Canada. Companies are required to submit detailed scientific data for review and approval by Health Canada, before such foods can be sold.
Regulators consider whether the food produced from a new biotech plant is "substantially equivalent" to the food produced from the plant's conventional counterpart. To date, every biotech crop on the market — from corn to canola to soybeans — has been proven "substantially equivalent" and thus fully safe to grow and eat.
Several leading health organisations have voiced support for biotechnology, including:
- The World Health Organisation, which stated that "the benefits of biotechnology are many," including improved production and reduced pesticide use, and promise "major improvements in both food quality and nutrition."14
It's important to understand that all foods have nutritional labeling in Canada. Additional labeling is required if there might be a potential safety issue such as allergens. Since all biotech foods are carefully evaluated and only approved if safe, there is no need for additional labeling.15 A voluntary labeling standard was established in 2004 whereby food manufacturers have information available to consumers wanting to know whether foods contain biotech products. Consumers have the choice of purchasing foods with no genetically modified ingredients. New Canadian regulations under the Canadian Agricultural Products Act mean that foods labeled "organic" are free of genetically modified ingredients.
1 "Health Canada: Genetically Modified Foods and Other Novel Foods" http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/gmf-agm/index-eng.php.
2 "What are Novel Foods and Genetically Modified Foods?" http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/gmf-agm/index-eng.php.
3 "Biotech Crops Experience Remarkable Dozen Years of Double Digit Growth", International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, February 13, 2008, http://www.isaaa.org.
4 "Benefits of Biotech Crops Have Fueled Rapid Growth in Canada," Council for Biotechnology Information, http://www.whybiotech.ca.
5 "An Agronomic and Economic Assessment of Transgenic Canola," Canola Council of Canada, http://www.canola- council.org/production/gmo_toc.html.
6 "Majid Foolad Breeds Tomatoes with Blight Resistance Plus Higher Lycopene" The Tomato Magazine, February 2007, http://www.columbiapublications.com/tomatomagazine/february2007/mfoolad.htm.
7 "Farmers Continue to Show Commitment and Support for Plant Biotechnology in Canada and Around the World," http://www.croplife.ca/web/english/mediaroom/newsreleases/2008feb13.cfm.
8 "Soybean Crops in Canada: A report on the successful introduction of GM soybean into the Canadian marketplace" http://www.croplife.ca/web/english/mediaroom/newsreleases/2008feb13.cfm.
9 "Global Status of Commercial Biotech/GM Crops: 2007, International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, February 13, 2008, http://www.isaaa.org.
10 "Genetically modified foods and novel foods," http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/gmf-agm/index-eng.php.
12 "Declaration of Food Allergies," http://www.inspection.gc.ca/english/fssa/invenq/inform/20070323e.shtml.
13 "Alleviating Peanut Allergy using RNAi," September 14, 2007, http://botswanacollegeofagriculture.blogspot.com/2007/09/alleviating-peanut-allergy-using-rnai.html.
14 "Biotechnology (GM) Foods," http://www.who.int/foodsafety/biotech/en/.
15 "Labelling of novel foods derived through genetic engineering," http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/gmf-agm/fs-if/faq_3-eng.php.