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Genetically Modified Diplomacy

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October 30, 2006

Genetically Modified Diplomacy

Canada's International Biotech Agenda

by Yuill Herbert

Critics argue that government is being influenced by large biotech corporations and regulatory norms in the US. photo: Jessica Bray
According to several observers, Canada's diplomatic maneuvers at the UN and WTO could weaken international environmental law and accelerate the spread of unpopular genetically-modified organisms around the world.

In 2003, Canada, along with the US and Argentina, initiated proceedings at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to challenge the European Community's (EC) ban on Genetically-Modified Organisms (GMOs). On September 29 of this year, the WTO declared the EC's GMO regulations illegal and instructed it to modify its laws accordingly.

"Although politicians claim that environmental law and trade law support each other, this ruling demonstrates that in the hands of the WTO, environmental law is in fact made subservient to trade laws," said Duncan Currie, international law expert and author of a Greenpeace assessment of the WTO case. Canada was the first industrialized country to ratify the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity, which was first agreed to at the UN Earth Summit in 1992 and reaffirmed in 2002. The Convention includes the Biosafety Protocol, which regulates the movement of GMOs across borders.

"The ruling contradicts what heads of state agreed at the UN World Summit," said Currie.

The WTO ruled that the precautionary principle, a mainstay of international environmental law, was too controversial and unsettled a concept to be a general principle of law. The precautionary principle states that if the potential consequences of an action are severe or irreversible, in the absence of full scientific certainty, the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action.

"If taken as precedent," writes Canadian law firm McCarthy Tétrault, "this position could affect the regulation of many other industries." McCarthy Tétrault gives the example of the EC's draft rules for testing the effects of certain industrial chemicals for public health consequences. "If those rules incorporate the precautionary principle, any resulting restrictions could be challenged for not being based on hard scientific evidence."

"This ruling is important," says Howard Minigh, former vice-president of DuPont and [current?] president of Brussels-based CropLife International, which represents biotech companies. "Regulations based on political expediency and excessive precaution encouraged by propaganda from anti-biotech groups" put producers of farm goods at a disadvantage, he says.

The Canadian government claims that its domestic GMO testing system is foolproof and that Canadian-approved GMO products are safe. A review of decisions by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency shows that all 61 applications for GMO animal-feed products were approved. Agriculture Canada has also approved 89 GMO food products for human consumption.

Are Canada's regulations for GMOs safe? GMOs are not labeled, and thus difficult to test, but according to Dr. Joe Cummins, "there has been a large increase in food allergy and food-related illness after the GM foods were spread around North American markets."

"In Canada," said Cummins, who is a member of the UK-based Independent Science Panel and an emeritus professor of genetics at the University of Western Ontario, "most processed foods contain GM corn, soy or canola products."

"Even though it is not possible to do good science of the unlabelled foods, laboratory animal studies showed a range of adverse effects from allergy, inflammation or pre-cancerous lesion of the digestive system. Such studies are ignored by the Canadian government but they are well documented."

A 2004 report by the Polaris Institute looked at the 58 recommendations to protect public health by the Royal Society's 2001 Expert Panel on the Future of Food Biotechnology. The report found that while some progress has been made, there is still a great deal that needs to be done before Canadians have a precautionary regulatory system to protect their families and the environment from the risks of GMOs.

"It appears to me that the government has been unduly influenced by large biotech corporations and the regulatory norms in place south of the border," said Dr. Peter Andree, author of the Polaris report. "As a result, in general I think it is fair to say that Canadian regulators do not recognize the potential severity of the risks of products of biotechnology, or the value of a more precautionary response to those risks."

In the meantime, the Canadian government is campaigning to open the world market to GMOs, including the 'Terminator' gene. Terminator seeds are genetically engineered to result in crops that don't grow viable seeds. Farmers who use the Terminator seeds cannot save seeds from their crops and are forced to buy new seeds. There is a currently an international moratorium on the use and marketing of Terminator seeds.

"Terminator seeds are a weapon of mass destruction and an assault on our food sovereignty," said Viviana Figueroa of the Ocumazo indigenous community in Argentina on behalf of the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity.

"Terminator [technology] directly threatens our life, our culture and our identity as indigenous peoples."

In 2005, a leaked report obtained by the ETC Group indicated that Canadian diplomats were heading to a Convention on Biodiversity meeting with instruction to "block consensus" in order to help lift the moratorium.

The Canadian government was swamped with letters of protest from around the world and references to the Terminator were deleted in the official text after strong objections from other countries.

"This is a momentous day for the 1.4 billion poor people worldwide, who depend on farmer-saved seeds," Francisca Rodriguez of La Via Campesina, a global network of peasant farmers, said of the decision.

In spite of the international outcry, Pat Mooney of ETC Group noted that Canada continued to support Terminator technology at the last Biodiversity Convention meeting in Curitiba, Brazil, in 2006, but in a "low-key way."

"In the end," continues Mooney, "efforts by Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the USA were blocked by the EU and developing countries and the Convention on Biodiversity ultimately strengthened its moratorium against Terminator."

"We nevertheless have the impression that Canada will continue to push for Terminator both in trees and crops."

Canada is also using its international aid program to spread biotech.

Through the Canadian International Development Agency, Canada is developing a biosciences centre for East and Central Africa, as one of four "agricultural centres of excellence" being developed around Africa, with an estimated cost of over $30 million. The United States is expected to build a centre in North Africa; the UK will build one in South Africa, and France; one in West Africa.

"It is clear from the information we have gathered," said Mooney, "that BECA is being built to promote agricultural biotechnology."

The WTO decision will open up new markets for Canadian biotech, an industry with annual revenues of $5 billion and an annual research expenditure of $3 billion.

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