The dawning of a new era in ag sustainability
Who would have fathomed how significant a day in March 1995 would become in the history of Canadian agriculture? On March 14th, 1995, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) approved the two genetically modified (GM), herbicide tolerant varieties of canola for commercial production. These were the first GM crops to be approved for production and consumption in Canada. AgrEvo Canada Inc. had a glufosinate ammonium tolerant variety of canola approved, while Monsanto Canada’s approved canola was glyphosate tolerant. Now, 25 years later, the impact of these two crop approval decisions, is nothing short of phenomenal. The beneficial impacts of GM crops on yield, chemical use and sustainability have completely transformed Prairie agriculture over this period.
Prior to commercial release, both of these GM canola varieties underwent an extensive risk assessment process. Both companies compiled an extensive amount of scientific data requested by the CFIA and submitted this data to the CFIA, where it was reviewed by expert scientists. In their review, the regulatory risk assessment examined five fundamental environmental potential risks:
- The potential of GM canola to become a weed or to be invasive of natural habitats.
In this instance, conventional, non-GM canola was already considered a common weed and the risk assessment determined the weediness of GM canola would be equivalent to existing canola varieties.
- The potential for gene flow to weedy relatives.
There was some potential for this, however, research that examined 2.9 million wild mustard seeds (mustard and canola are both in the brassica family) grown in the presence of GM canola found no hybrids.
- The potential to alter plant pests.
Canola is not a plant pest in Canada. The risk assessment concluded the herbicide tolerant trait would not alter this.
- The potential impact on non-target organisms.
Other crop varieties were assessed as non-target organisms, including wheat, barley, lentils, peas, flax and alfalfa. This assessment concluded that soil fertility, soil bacteria, plant health and yield were not impacted. An assessment for impacts on bees determined there were no negative impacts. The potential for GM canola to be an allergen was also assessed and it was determined that no allergenic effects would result if consumed by humans or livestock.
- Potential impacts on biodiversity.
It was determined that GM canola would have no different effect on biodiversity than non-GM canola.
The start of something big
Following the approval of these two GM canola varieties, they entered into seed multiplication programs. In 1995, there were an estimated 30,000 acres of seed production, growing to 240,000 in 1996. By 1997, GM canola was available for widespread commercial release. The adoption of GM canola was the most rapid adoption of any innovation in the history of agriculture, as GM canola was produced on just over 10% of acres in 1997, 55% in 1999, 80% by 2005 and over 90% in 2008.
A needed change
Over the past 25 years, the agriculture industry has witnessed substantial increases in weed control efficiency. While tillage had long been the standard form of weed control, it resulted in soil erosion and reduced moisture conservation. The improvement of chemical weed control, allowed farmers to gradually reduce their use of tillage as the leading form of weed control. Today, there are 95% fewer summerfallow acres in Saskatchewan than was the case in the early 1990s, prior to GM canola. The move towards increased agricultural sustainability has been driven by the adoption of GM canola across Western Canada. The production of non-GM canola varieties has been limited due to the lack of effective in-crop chemical weed control options. While the adoption of GM canola reduced the environmental impact of chemical use in the production of canola by over 50%.
Quite possibly the most significant benefit of GM canola can be observed by driving down virtually any country road in Western Canada on a windy summer day. Driving down this road 30 years ago, one would have experienced dust constantly blowing across the road due to the presence of summerfallow fields. Today, dust blowing across rural roads is virtually a thing of the past as GM canola has precipitated the move to zero tillage land management practices. It is very satisfying to be able to observe the sustainability of GM canola simply by taking a scenic drive down a country road on a summer day.