Life with adventitious presence
Differing standards means slower uptake.
November 13, 2007 By Ralph Pearce
If the pundits are correct, and agriculture is about to experience a new wave
of stability and opportunity, growers are going to have to adapt to changing
demands. Some industry executives and stakeholders speak of a looming tug-of-war
between the fledgling biofuel sector and the traditional food processing sector,
forecasting everything from tightening supplies and increasing prices to growers.
In the midst of these changes, something called adventitious presence is making
itself known with greater frequency. By many accounts, it is not a new topic
for consideration. Yet, the common agreement among many is that growers will
need to incorporate its guidelines and standards as this new trading environment
for food and fuel develops.
According to a brochure from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), adventitious
presence (AP) 'means the unintended, technically unavoidable presence of genetically
engineered material in an agri-food commodity'. The presence can exist as GM
content in a non-GM source or as a different form of genetically modified material
in another GM variety or hybrid.
The contentious aspect of AP is its varying standards from country to country.
At present, there is no internationally accepted standard. "That is what's
been worked on for quite a long time," says Patty Townsend, vice-president
of the Canadian Seed Trade Association (CSTA) in Ottawa. "In Canada, AAFC
has put together an Adventitious Presence working group and they've held a number
of consultations that CSTA was involved in."
There are so many different aspects and angles under consideration on this
issue that no settlement is forthcoming in the short-term. Whether it should
be an industry-led process or one that is regulated is one issue. Should it
be set according to the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development
(OECD) guidelines or the International Seed Federation where seed is concerned,
or the United Nations' Codex Alimentarius in the case of food and feed is another
issue to be determined.
As they are now, the standards on a global basis are a vague mix of interpretations
and differing tolerances. "The EU has some standards in place, where they're
now saying 0.9 percent adventitious presence of a line or a GM product that's
approved in the EU is acceptable, but 0.5 percent if it has received a favourable
scientific assessment, but is not yet approved," explains Townsend.
She adds that there is some work going on now which hopefully would be taken
up by the Codex Alimentarius on the presence of genetic material that has been
approved as safe for food and feed in one or more countries, but not necessarily
by the importing country. "They're just trying to figure out how they might
be able to come up with standardized risk management or risk management tools
so that the trait can continue to go on. Because even in Canada, if a GM event
or line is not approved in Canada as safe, we have a zero tolerance for that,
Changing world, changing standards
Testing methods and the emergence of newer, larger trading partners are other
issues challenging the harmonization process among existing participants. China's
and India's respective arrivals on the world trading scene will have an influence,
especially since they have few if any guidelines where AP is concerned. Yet
it is the lack of standardized scientific testing methods that concerns Denise
Dewar, executive director of Plant Biotechnology with CropLife Canada in Etobicoke.
"We need to get that standardized and that's another separate process
that's going on, separate from the Codex process. Right now, there's too much
potential for false positives," says Dewar. "The issue with AP is
that it's not a safety issue at all, it's all about technical barriers to trade,
unfortunately, and the long-standing position of the EU on GM technology that
has resulted in the need to do this."
Without internationally standardized scientific testing methods, the risk of
a tariff being imposed or worse, a ship being forced to stop in the middle of
the ocean, remains very real. "And that just makes life incredibly complicated
and expensive for everybody for these small levels of adventitious presence,"
From an on-farm perspective, trace amounts of dust can be deemed AP, although
the concern is more on the presence of genetically modified material. Detail
in the levels of measurement are also said to have a greater impact. For instance,
current methods of testing for AP or even trace elements in soil are expressed
in parts per million (ppm). New methods can measure in parts per billion (ppb)
with parts per trillion (ppt) expected in the not-too-distant future.
"The question that comes up is 'Yes' you can find it but what does it
mean? What do you have to be concerned about, if anything?" poses Dewar.
"Although we can find these things, what do we do with that information?
Right now, we're seeing countries around the world saying, 'If we find any of
it, we're going to stop your exports. But that's not a place the world can afford
to be in. From a scientific standpoint it doesn't hold up, but it does make
a very nice barrier to trade."
From the grower's perspective, Henry Olechowski maintains that AP has been
around for a while, even if it has not been expressly identified at the primary
production level. "We take measures to ensure we meet the standards of
our customers, which are normally above and beyond what the rules the CFIA impose,"
says Olechowski, director of research with Hyland Seeds in Blenheim, Ontario.
"What it means is that you have other procedures in place, such as quality
management systems, manuals in place, you store seed separately, you clean equipment
thoroughly, and you might even have two sets of equipment to make sure you don't
That can be an added expense, but Olechowski maintains growers must keep in
mind who their customers are. Despite the current low-cost approach to agriculture
in North America, there is a move towards a more responsible attitude, where
all levels of the value chain benefit. "It's a total mind-set for the industry,
and we are making progress," says Olechowski. "Certainly with some
smaller projects, we find growers with that attitude and the processors that
are willing to pay the additional costs. Again, you have to remember who your
customer is." -30-