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Canada to study effect of transgenics on farm soils

(Thursday, June 12, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Edmonton Journal via Agnet: OTTAWA - Canada is, according to this story, investing nearly $600,000 to learn whether genetically modified crops -- already approved and grown for years on thousands of Canadian farms -- are damaging farm soils.

The story says that the big question is whether GM crops are passing their genes to the natural underground microbes which make soil productive by breaking down dead plants and helping live plants absorb vital nutrients.

This has never been tested, even though genetically modified corn, soybeans, canola and other crops have been approved for commercial growing across Canada. In 2000, GM crops were planted on about 40 million hectares of land in Canada, the U.S. and Argentina, and their use has grown since then.

Clarence Swanton, a University of Guelph professor of plant agriculture, was quoted as writing in a summary of his project that, "If the use of GM crops continues to grow in Canada, it is imperative that we understand the environmental consequences."

A letter from the Ontario Soybean Growers was quoted as saying, "We would like to ascertain that we are not compromising the long-term sustainability of our soils or causing genetic alteration of beneficial soil organisms." The story explains that at Guelph, Swanton will focus on two Roundup Ready crops -- corn and soybeans with an added gene making them resistant to Roundup, a common weed killer. Farmers can plant Roundup Ready corn, spray Roundup herbicide, and kill everything in the field except the corn.

But bacteria, viruses and other microbes are adept at picking up genes from other organisms they meet, from humans and animals to other bacteria. Swanton's proposal says some scientists are afraid inserted genes might pass into the soil microbes, with unknown results. "However, no scientific evidence exists to either support or refute this claim."

The funding comes from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Canada's federal science funding body.

Documents outlining the project came to light through an access to information request by Ottawa researcher Ken Rubin.