GENET archive


6-Genetech §§: BIOSAFETY - Canadian media split between propaganda and information (2)

-------------------------- GENET-news ---------------------------

TITLE:  Trade, technology and tomatoes: Nations face off in
        Montreal on issues including genetically modified foods
SOURCE: The Montreal Gazette, by Mark Abley
        edited by Agnet, Canada
DATE:   January 20, 2000

----------------- archive: ------------------

Trade, technology and tomatoes: Nations face off in Montreal on
issues including genetically modified foods

According to this story, what is at stake in the Montreal
meetings is the power of nations to say no to imports of
genetically modified foods, and to create rules for environmental
protection that are not subject to the World Trade Organization.
What may also be at risk is a serious disruption of the current
trading system. Jennifer Story of the Council of Canadians was
quoted as saying, "We're afraid that Canada and its allies in
the Miami Group are going to kill the whole deal. We're worried
that the environment will lose out to trade interests, and that
Canada will be the axeman. The U.S. is using Canada to do its
dirty work - and Canada has done so with enthusiasm."

One member of the official Canadian delegation, speaking off the
record, was cited as telling The Gazette that the fundamental
problem is that the Departments of Environment and Health dropped
the ball on the issue, leaving it largely in the hands of Foreign
Affairs and International Trade. It's not even certain whether
Canada's environment minister, David Anderson, will attend the
conference. Canada's position is now seen by the vast majority of
countries - including most of our North Atlantic Treaty
Organization allies - as "extreme," the source said. "The
damage to our reputation is incredible."

Michelle Swenarchuk, director of international programs for the
Canadian Environmental Law Association, a member of an advisory
committee to Canada's delegation, was cited as dropping out of
the delegation itself in dismay at the Canadian stance, adding,
"Four years ago, the discussions at these meetings were on how
to protect biodiversity. But that has completely changed. In the
last two years, the discussions have been entirely trade
dominated. This time around, is Canada going to pay any attention
to environmental protection?"

After the previous set of meetings broke up last year in
disarray, the 39 articles of the draft protocol were left in
limbo. Nine core issues - potential deal-breakers - remained in
serious dispute. Of those, three are deemed "essential core
issues." They're the absolute deal-breakers: if they're not
resolved, no protocol will be signed.

The most contentious questions are these:

- The scope of the protocol. Will it apply to first international
movements of all living modified organisms (as the developing
countries want) or will it contain blanket exemptions for the
commodity trade and for all products intended as food, as animal
feed or destined to be processed (as the Miami Group wants)?

- The "Advanced Informed Agreement" procedure. Will exporting
countries have to give potential importers the full details of
any new, living modified organism? Developing countries are
demanding this right, but the Miami Group wants it to apply only
to the relatively small number of organisms meant for
"intentional introduction into the environment."

- The "precautionary principle." If such a principle ends up in
the protocol, then a nation could choose to ban a product even in
the absence of scientific certainty about its potential hazards.
Environmentalists want this, as do the developing nations and the
European Union. The Miami Group considers the whole principle

- Liability and compensation. Developing nations want to add a
new article to the protocol setting out a process whereby
countries could obtain damages for harm caused by genetically
modified organisms; the Miami Group rejects the notion.

- Social and economic considerations. The draft protocol
specifies that an importing country may consider the impact of
genetically modified organisms on "biological diversity,
especially with regard to ... indigenous and local communities."
The Miami Group wants to cut out the line about indigenous and
local communities. Developing nations prefer to keep it; they
also want to create an early-warning system for commodities that
may lose their market because of scientific advances.

- The power to override trade agreements. The present wording
states that the protocol will not affect the obligations that
nations owe under other agreements, "except where the exercise
of those rights and obligations would cause serious damage or
threat to biological diversity." The Miami Group wants that
entire clause removed. In other words, it wants the protocol to
be subservient to the rules of the WTO.

Dale Adolphe, president of the Canola Council of Canada, was
quoted as saying in a phone interview from Winnipeg that,
"Canada's position is one we agree with. It's a hard-nosed
position, and we think it has to stay there." The story says
that whether or not they know it, most Canadian families already
consume many products made with genetically modified canola,
potatoes, tomatoes, soybeans or corn. As such products are not
identified on the shelves, consumers have little or no choice.

In Adolphe's mind, an environmental protocol like the one being
negotiated in Montreal is no place to deal with issues of food
safety. Moreover, he says, items that are not meant to be
released into the environment - genetically modified canola, for
example - should be exempt from the protocol:

Adolphe admits that even in a rich nation like Canada, spillage
of grains during transport is inevitable. To environmentalists,
that's reason to push for the inclusion of commodities like
canola under the biosafety protocol. But Adolphe turns the point
around to ask a sharp rhetorical question: "Whether it's the CN
rail yards in Winnipeg or a port in Timbuktu, should the
international commodity trade be held at ransom by the integrity
or the sloppiness of the grain-handling system in another

Yet the industry as a whole may be prepared to change its ways
more than Adolphe - or the Canadian government - is willing to
admit. The pressure is coming not just from activist groups like
Greenpeace; it's also coming from food-manufacturing companies in
Japan and Europe, and (as in the case of Gerber and McCain Foods)
in North America, too.

As a result, North American growers of soybeans, corn, wheat and
other crops are, the story says, now searching frantically for
ways to segregate traditional crops from genetically modified
ones. In a major speech last October, the president of the
Canadian Wheat Board, Greg Arason, suggested they're right to do
so - whatever the federal government may say. Arason was quoted
as saying, "In our view, no transgenic varieties should be
registered for commercial production in Canada until either they
have achieved full commercial acceptance in all of their
potential markets, or until we have cost-effective technologies
to segregate by variety throughout the system."

The story says that supporters of the biotech industry have come
down hard on Western environmentalists for attacking genetically
modified food. They say that farmers and consumers in developing
nations could reap tremendous benefits from biotechnology - and
that without it, those nations stand to sink ever deeper into
poverty. But, the story adds, there's an irony here. It's the
promoters of the technology, not the environmentalists, who now
find themselves telling the developing countries that they don't
really understand what's best for them. The Western
environmentalists, meanwhile, have been backing the positions
taken by the poor countries.

This week, a coalition of non-governmental organizations, led by
the Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy, issued a
statement of principles on eight outstanding issues at the talks.
In every case, the NGOs disagreed with Canada's stance. This is
not only a scientific battle; it's also one of public relations.
So far, the biotech industry has been losing. A Gazette poll
taken in December was typical: it showed that 97 per cent of
Montrealers want genetically modified foods to be labeled, 65 per
cent don't want to eat them, and 53 per cent think they should be

In response to such figures, the industry has launched a PR
offensive. Using ads and inserts in national magazines, toll-free
numbers, Internet sites and other devices, the biotech lobby is
striving to persuade Canadians that their doubts are misplaced
and their food is safe. But most of the research done on biotech
safety in this country (and in the U.S.) is, the story says,
funded by the industry itself. Critics say dissenting scientists
- like the Health Canada scientists who claimed that they were
under pressure from their bosses to approve the use of bovine
growth hormone - face great pressure to conform. Still, only a
few studies so far have indicated that there may be a health risk
for humans who eat genetically modified food. The most famous of
them, published in Britain early last year, suggested that by
eating genetically modified potatoes, rats can damage their
immune systems.

A study published in 1996 in the New England Journal of Medicine
showed that when a gene from a protein-rich Brazil nut was
spliced into a soybean so as to improve its nutritional quality,
the allergens from the Brazil nut also showed up in the soybeans.
Given the fast-rising numbers of people who suffer from food
allergies throughout the industrialized world, the news provoked
understandable concern.

And just this week, Ann Clark, an agriculture professor at the
University of Guelph, charged that according to the federal
government's own data, most of the genetically modified foods
approved for use in Canada have not been fully tested, either for
toxicity or for allergies. Whether or not the modified foods pose
a health risk to humans, evidence continues to mount that the
technology can have dangerous effects on the environment.

For example, Danish scientists have discovered that genes moving
from genetically altered crops create gene-altered weeds that are
harder to control than normal weeds. Even more alarming, U.S.
research published in December suggested that if genetically
modified fish (a fish carrying the gene for human growth hormone)
were released into a wild population, the wild fish would become
less viable and could ultimately become extinct. Last week, the
U.S. government slapped new rules on crops of genetically altered
corn. Under the regulations, farmers will have to plant at least
20 per cent of their acreage in traditional seed, rather than
growing all their crop with a corn that makes its own

The aim is to protect harmless or useful insects such as the
Monarch butterfly, whose numbers, the story says, may be falling
because of insecticidal corn pollen blowing onto other plants,
and to slow down the rapid evolution of "super-insects" that
are already resistant to the poison bound into the new strains of
corn. Small wonder that the World Wildlife Fund is among the NGOs
with representatives at the Montreal talks. The leader of its
delegation, Gordon Shepherd, said in a phone interview this week
from Geneva that "the impact of modified organisms on
biodiversity could be quite horrific." Anne Mitchell, executive
director of the Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and
Policy, was quoted as saying, "Canada's role to date in events
surrounding the protocol has been nothing short of an
international embarrassment."

The federal government thinks otherwise. One senior bureaucrat,
speaking on condition of anonymity, was cited as telling The
Gazette that "the volatile rhetoric is not well-founded and is
confounding our trading activities." On Saturday, Jan. 22,
groups such as Greenpeace, the Council of Canadians and Biotech
Action Montreal have organized a public forum at the Universite
du Quebec a Montreal, starting at 10 a.m. At noon, protesters
will march from UQAM to the ICAO building. 


|                   GENET                     |
| European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering |
|                                             |
|             Hartmut MEYER (Mr)              |
|          Reinhaeuser Landstr. 51            |
|            D - 37083 Goettingen             |
|                 Germany                     |
|                                             |
| phone: +49-551-7700027                      |
| fax:   +49-551-7701672                      |
| email:                    |