Over the past 15 years, Canadian farmers' experience with contamination from genetically engineered (GE) crops has exposed the seriousness of the problem. One of the earliest arguments advocating caution in the release of GE plants into the environment was based on the fact we cannot control or recall these living, self-replicating organisms. Our inability to fully predict the path of contamination and its consequences is one reason why genetic engineering is still referred to as one large, living experiment.

Contamination from GE crop plants or other GE organisms can occur through a number of different means, including insect or wind pollination, seed mixing and human error. Commonly, the contamination is not examined before GE crops are approved, partly because the social and economic impacts of contamination are not taken into consideration when government creates regulations. Bill C-474, which will be voted on early this month, would recognize the possible economic cost of contamination by requiring that the government assess export market harm before a new GE seed is permitted.

Contamination from GE crop plants is a reoccurring, predictable problem that can have serious impacts on the livelihood of farmers and the future of organic crops. For example, because of GE contamination organic grain farmers on the Prairies lost organic canola as a market and rotation crop; GE canola contaminated non-GE canola to such a degree that, most, if not all, pedigreed seed growers in Saskatchewan could not warrant their canola seed as GE-free and most, if not all, grain farmers could not warrant their canola crop as free of GE contamination, even if it was planted with GE-free seeds.

For six years, Saskatchewan organic grain farmers tried to establish a class action suit to receive financial compensation from the Monsanto and Bayer corporations for loss of organic canola. Unfortunately, their class action was not certified so the case itself never came to court. Organic canola can now only be grown in a few geographically isolated areas in Canada, Prince Edward Island being one of them.

Farmers in Canada are still suffering the impacts of the recent GE flax contamination crisis. The long line for testing flax for contamination is delaying delivery of the harvested crop and costing farmers money. In late 2009, our European market for Canadian flax was closed due to the discovery of contamination with a GE flax that was not approved in any of the 36 countries where contamination was reported. Ten years earlier, flax farmers successfully requested the GE flax be taken off the market because they foresaw this exact scenario. Since 2001, it has been illegal to sell the GE flax seed in Canada. Unfortunately, this was not enough to stop the GE contamination.

In two separate incidents of contamination from experimental-stage, unapproved GE pigs in Canada, human error was the cause. In 2002, 11 GE "Enviropig" piglets from the University of Guelph were accidentally sent to a rendering plant and turned into animal feed instead of being destroyed as biological waste. The then university VP of research told the Globe and Mail, "Things you don't expect to happen can happen." In 2004, a similar contamination incident happened in Quebec, with pigs that were genetically engineered to produce pharmaceutical compounds.

While certified organic farmers take strong measures to protect their fields and our food from contamination, this will be virtually impossible if GE alfalfa is planted in North America. The threat of GE alfalfa in 2011 is the most pressing reason why Members of Parliament should vote in support of Bill C-474. The final debate on this Bill is scheduled for February 7 and the final vote should happen later that week.