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7-Misc: The Canadian GM debate is getting hotter

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TITLE:  The mad voyage beyond zero risk
SOURCE: National Post, Canada, by Terence Corcoran
DATE:   May 8, 1999

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CBC Radio One's week-long carpet-bombing of biotechnology ended yesterday. In media terms, Monsanto has been pretty well reduced to Yugoslavian rubble by reporter Bob Carty and his squad of smear artists and distortion experts. The biotech series ended yesterday after the CBC held Lyle Vanclief, Canada's Agriculture Minister, prisoner in a studio and subjected him to interrogation by Avril Benoit, co-host of the This Morning show. The minister escaped, but possibly not with enough steam to overcome the damage done earlier in the week.

In must be said, though, that Mr. Vanclief performed well under battle conditions. Ms. Benoit, a slave to her notes, kept firing pre-set loaded questions about genetically modified (GM) food. To each question, the minister replied with sound answers and a defence of science-based decision-making. "We have to be very careful, Avril, that we make decisions based on science rather than based on emotion . . . There is information out there that isn't always based on science."

That would have been news to Ms. Benoit, who, along with CBC listeners, had spent the previous four days being fed a line of alarmist fantasy and junk science about biotechnology and its evil corporate promoters. By CBC accounts, Monsanto and biotech firms are trying to blow the world to smithereens with genetically modified potatoes and corn.

When Ms. Benoit claimed the CBC had uncovered "some new science" in England (science reviewed on the Financial Post Comment page earlier during Junk Science Week), Mr. Vanclief said, "as far as I'm concerned, this is blown out of proportion." Consumer choice should reign, said the minister. If the science, technology and evidence support the safety of genetically modified food and biotech products in general, then the choice of whether to purchase those products should be left to individual consumers. Canada does not require labelling of GM products, and Mr. Vanclief appeared to be supporting the current system. Labelling is a favourite theme of biotech opponents. Their idea, however, is to require companies to label all GM foods with a skull and crossbones. The existing regulatory regime in Canada sets out a rational alternative. It makes it possible for voluntary labeling. Douglas Powell, author of the best Canadian book yet on the relationship between science and risk, argu!
es that the best label regime would allow food that has not been modified to be labelled "GMO Free." The vast majority of Canadians have no fear of genetic modification. Mr. Powell argues in his book, Mad Cows and Mother's Milk: The Perils of Poor Risk Communication, that most people would be even more willing to accept genetically modified potatoes if they understood the associated benefits, including better nutritional value, less use of pesticides, lower cost.

Canadians also want to know the risks. The main theme of Mad Cows and Mother's Milk - using Canadian junk science horrors such as bovine growth hormone, breast implants and PCBs as examples - is that biotech firms and governments could do much to improve the Canadian policy scene by effectively communicating risk information. Just getting the science right isn't good enough. People want and need to know what the risks are, and everything comes with risks. "A zero-risk policy is the functional equivalent of exorcism," said Mr. Powell.

Under the lights at the CBC, Mr. Vanclief also didn't crack under the usual zero-risk bait. "Based on all the science that you cite," asked Ms. Benoit, "you are 100% confident that [genetically modified food] is safe?" There's only one answer to that question, one the CBC knew could leave the minister open to attack. But Mr. Vanclief handled it well. "There's no such thing as absolutely confident, Avril, absolutely never. We can base it on the best science today . . . but there's no such thing in life as 100% risk-free." But risk-free exorcism is what the anti-biotech activists and junk science proponents are promoting. When we launched Junk Science Week last Tuesday, junk science was defined as science that distorts facts, exaggerates risk, and is steeped in politics and ideology. With junk science, we are no longer dealing even with zero risk, or totally risk-free products or circumstances. The scientists and activists who push health scares - such as Samuel Epstein, profile!
d nearby - are promoting a mythical level of tolerance that reaches somewhere beyond zero risk. Going beyond zero risk forces decisions into another dimension, the dimension of politics and fear. No scientists or agriculture ministers could claim there is no risk. But when the risks of eating an organic potato are identical to those of eating a GM potato, the risks of the GM potato are effectively zero. Claiming that GM potatoes pose a risk and should be banned or regulated, therefore, is to impose a standard that is beyond zero, in another realm, a realm of mysticism, and ideology, and medieval fear. 


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