While critics say bio-engineered crops may pose hazards to the natural order, in some cases biotechnology can actually help prevent environmental catastrophes caused by traditional methods of farming.

But heavy-handed bans on biotech products by food companies are keeping the fruit of this technology from delivering benefits to the environment.

Recently a tragedy happened on the East Coast of Canada. In July 2002, heavy rains in Prince Edward Island washed an agricultural insecticide, applied to potato fields, into the Wilmot River and thousands of fish died as a result.

The potato farmers used a conventional chemical insecticide, azinphos-methyl (AZM), to manage Colorado potato beetle damage to their crops. Some have claimed that conversion to organic farming would have prevented this accident and many others like it. But most insecticides, synthetic or natural, are non-specific and deadly to many animals.

There is one notable exception.

Contrary to popular belief, many organic farmers use several types of insecticides including the chemicals rotenone and pyrethrums, and a common soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt).

Rotenone is deadly to fish and therefore not very environmentally friendly. It was recently implicated in the development of Parkinson's disease, so not very healthy for humans, either.

The organic insecticide pyrethrum is an oil extract of Chrysanthemum plants. It is a collection of at least a dozen different chemical compounds, which have a variety of biological activities.

EPA classifies pyrethrums as a "likely carcinogen". Pyrethrums have recently been demonstrated to increase limb deformities in developing amphibians and to possess anti-microbial activities. These properties of pyrethrums are definitely detrimental to the environment.

Organic farmers have also been using bacteria to combat insect pests for more than 40 years. The soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt, has been a main agricultural tool of organic food production. The Bt bacteria make a protein (cry3A) that is specifically toxic to beetle-type insects. This natural insecticide is both safe for all non-beetle insects and harmless to all other animals and plants.

Biotechnology scientists isolated the cry3A gene from the bacterium and transferred it into the potato plants. The result is crops that protect themselves from Colorado Potato beetles without the need for other organophosphate insecticides.

Presently the government-approved crops that contain Bt genes are corn, potato, cotton and tomato. The use of these biotechnology crops has resulted in hundreds of millions of kilograms of organophosphate insecticides not being applied to the environment.

The benefits of increased yields for the farmer and reductions in organophosphate insecticide use clearly make the adoption of Bt crops an environmentally sustainable biotechnology.

Concerns raised by opponents of Bt crops include the potential spread of pollen with the engineered DNA to other plants, use of antibiotic marker genes, and Bt resistance development in insects. But potatoes, unlike corn, reproduce asexually (without pollen transfer).

The United States' Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in its Revised Bt Crops Assessment 2001 document, states there is no foreseeable risk of transfer of the Bt cry3A genes from potatoes to other plants. The antibiotic resistance marker gene is not active in the plant, and therefore no antibiotic resistance protein is produced in the potato.

Resistance development in insects is a risk regardless of whether the insecticide is a whole bacterium, one protein, a natural or synthetic chemical. All Bt crops grown in North America have accompanying insect resistance management programs.

These plans are designed to reduce the likelihood of resistance development in insect pest species. To date, these programs have been very successful in preventing Bt resistance in pest species.

Conventional farmers are passionate stewards of the land. Many would like to grow the environmentally friendly Bt potatoes. Unfortunately, their biggest buyer, McCain Foods, will not accept them.

McCain Foods is the No. 1 buyer of potatoes in North America, and its position on Bt potatoes can be read on its Web page (www.mccain.com). In summary, it says: "In North America, a small percentage of potatoes were genetically modified to better protect the plants against pests and disease…

"With the concern expressed by some customers, McCain Foods in North America decided not to accept any GMO potatoes effective with the 2000 crop, and has instituted testing procedures.

"While McCain Foods believes that biotechnology has the potential to offer many positive benefits for people around the world, it is in the business of providing what its customers want and will always listen carefully to their concerns."

I believe McCain Foods' blanket refusal to consider Bt potatoes is short-sighted. Bacillus thuringiensis has been demonstrated to be safe as a result of more than 40 years of use in organic agriculture. More precise use of only the cry3A gene has not changed the safety record, and no one anywhere has been harmed from any biotechnology-developed Bt crop.

It is the awakening of the environmentalist in us all that should help pressure the largest potato buyer in North America to change its policy on Bt potatoes, which offer a safe, effective insect management strategy. Clearly this biotechnology option, in this location, makes the most sense -- the environment deserves it, we deserve it.

The adoption or rejection of food biotechnology products should be done on a case-by-case basis. The built-in environmental protection and stable yields for the farmers clearly make Bt potatoes the right option in this case.

Robert Wager
Malaspina University College

Originally Published in the Penticton Herald, September 16 2004