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October 20, 2019

The Expert: What I Know About … Transgenic Crops

If it looks like a pea, tastes like a pea but has genes from other plants, is it still a pea?

Who: Linda Hall

Age: 61

Job: Professor, Department of Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science at the University of Alberta

Experience: If it looks like a pea, tastes like a pea but has genes from other plants, is it still a pea? Linda Hall can tell you. She researches transgenic crops, like the peas being grown in the U of A greenhouse, to ensure they are safe. Transgenic crops are plants given a gene construct from another type of plant or bacteria. This is done to give the crop a specific trait it doesn’t originally have, such as high resistance to disease. Hall, who has worked at the university for seven years, ensures that transgenic crops don’t pose environmental risks – she can spend five years researching one vegetable.

After completing her BSc and MSc at the U of A and a PhD at the University of Saskatchewan, Hall headed to South Australia to do post-doctoral work. Two years later, she returned to Edmonton and became interested in transgenics while working as a crop scientist at Alberta Agriculture.

– “We have four different transgenic constructs that have been placed into peas. Canada is the largest producer of peas for the world. The problem is, we have all these peas out there, which are really good for the environment because they fix nitrogen, but now we have disease building up. 

– “We have four of these constructs. All of them come from other plants. For the disease-resistant peas, we have a raspberry gene that makes a protein. Raspberry has a high ability to fight off disease organisms. We borrowed that protein and now the peas are making that protein and hopefully they will have the opportunity to fight off disease as well. We have another gene from a grape – it’s the same gene that makes grapes and wine very healthy. They look like peas, they taste like peas and they will be virtually identical, except they will have this ability to fight off disease.

– “From idea to actually being grown in the field openly, it takes 10 to 12 years. It’s a long-term prospect but that should be reassuring for everyone, because that means that there is a lot of testing. They get tested for short-term effects in animal models, just like drugs are tested. Professionals test for oral toxicity, skin effects – those are some of the immediate ones. Then they do long-term tests to make sure there is nothing like birth defects or mutagenesis happening.

– “It takes between 10 and 20 million dollars to take transgenic crops through an international regulatory and safety check. Not only do they get checked in Canada and the U.S., they also get checked in Europe, the Japanese market, the Korean market, anywhere the crops would be sold. That requires a multi-national company [to fund that]. Then the company gets to choose the name of the transgenic crop.

– “It’s my job to make sure that they have no environmental concerns. We check to see that they do not become a plant pest, that their pollen is not causing an allergic reaction, that the pollinators (bees) are not harmed, that there is no harm to the soil microbes, that none of the other organisms that are going to be in contact with this crop are going to be harmed. It is going to have an effect on the disease organisms but hopefully it’s not going to have an effect on the soil micro-organisms. We want to make sure we haven’t turned them into an invasive plant that could start taking over our natural areas. 

– “There are really only three big transgenic crops that are already on the Canadian market on a larger scale: Canola, corn and soybeans. The other crop that’s worldwide is cotton but, of course, we don’t grow cotton here. We have a lot of other small, potential transgenic crops that we examine to see if they’re going to be functional: Peas, flax, camelina – a small oil seed. They’re trying to turn it into a biofuel.

– “At the University of Alberta, we’ve looked at flax. Flax has a healthy oil, a high Omega 3 oil. What we’re trying to do with that flax is enhance the Omega 3 health properties and boost the amount of healthy oil in the flax. Those trials get done under very small conditions, in a fenced area where the seeds are not lost. We basically count every seed that goes in and every seed that comes out. After we finish with those, we keep the ground pretty much bare for up to five years after some of the trials so that there is no possible way that those seeds can move anywhere. We don’t want any of those seeds to inadvertedly get into anything that we export to other countries.

– “When we go to Europe for our conferences, where we get together and talk about the safety of transgenic crops, we are frequently picketed. There is a different attitude [in Europe] and there is less trust of scientists. It’s not up to me whether to grow the crops or not. I produce the data. Canadians choose to grow them, most Europeans choose not to and that’s fine; they should be able to. A product in Canada is not just tested in Canada; it is tested anywhere in the world it is sold.”

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