In a written reply to an environmental petition from Greenpeace, the government says that it "is exploring potential options to designate certain plants developed using conventional or unconventional breeding methodologies, as platforms for pharma use that would not be part of the food or feed chain".
Canadian law allows groups or individuals to submit petitions to the federal government posing questions on various environmental matters. The government has to respond within 120 days. Greenpeace asked a long series of questions about open-air testing of genetically engineered plants to see whether they would be suitable for producing industrial or pharmaceutical ingredients.
The government response said tests of modified crops for industrial purposes have been conducted since 1994 under strict separation, inspection and reporting standards. These standards were developed in consultation with independent scientists. While canola and other food crops were tried at first, in recent years the trend has been to experiment with non-food crops.
However, the government has not yet decided to require the use of only non-food crops in what it calls "plant molecular farming".
The reply, released late last month, identifies tobacco as a leading candidate for industrial uses because it has been well researched by scientists and has virtually no wild relatives in Canada.
The issue of crop contamination is a hot topic in Canada at the moment. Last month, FoodProductionDaily.com reported on the case of a farmer in Saskatchewan province who was taken to court for growing patent-protected rapeseed on his land.
The farmer argued that the genetically modified Roundup Ready rapeseed must have blown onto his field from neighbouring fields or from passing trucks, and that he was within his rights to save and replant seed from his plants.
"The fact is that oil seed rape is a very small seed, and can easily be blown around," said UK-based Friends of the Earth GM campaigner Pete Riley. "The pollen can spread several kilometres. This means that genetically modified seeds are easily blown onto non-GM farmland, and these 'volunteer' crops, as they are called, are finding their way into our food chain whether we like it or not."
Anti-GM campaigners believe that the court case shows how easily non-GM fields can be contaminated. But for the giant biotech companies, the case is simply a matter of copyright infringement. BioteCanada, which represents biotechnology companies in the country, is claiming that the Saskachewan farmer must be held accountable for growing GM rapeseed for which he had no licence. If this does not happen, it argues, then Canada's patent laws will be worthless.
Two lower courts found that the farmer had infringed on a patent for a gene made by biotech firm Monsanto that enables rapeseed, which is used for cooking oil and animal feed, to withstand its herbicide Roundup. Monsanto says that, regardless of how the seeds came to be on his field, the farmer ignored warnings from its agent not to replant the seeds in the next season.