TRADE, TECHNOLOGY AND TOMATOES: NATIONS FACE OFF IN MONTREAL ON ISSUES INCLUDING GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOODS
January 20, 2000
The Montreal Gazette
MARK ABLEY, Front Line
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 unacceptable.
- 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 country?'' 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 banned. 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 insecticide. 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
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.
THE BIOTECH BRAWL IN MONTREAL
January 20, 2000
Columnist Corcoran writes that the masters of agit-prop - Greenpeace, the
Council of Canadians, CBC Radio's Bob Carty, assorted purveyors of junk
science and fear�are gearing up for a week-long assault on genetically
modified food and biotechnology. It won't match the World Trade Organization
extravaganza in Seattle, but the agitators hope the Biosafety Protocol
negotiations in Montreal next week can be hyped up into a major anti-GM food
fight worthy of global attention.
The factual background and warped politics behind the Biosafety Protocol, a
remote offshoot of the 1992 Rio Biodiversity Convention, would drive even
the most ardent internationalist to terminal boredom. The main point to know
is that the objective of Maude Barlow and her NGO associates is the opposite
of the Battle in Seattle.
While the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) wanted to shut down the
135-nation WTO trade negotiations, the Brawl in Montreal is aimed at getting
the same countries to approve a global biosafety agreement. If approved as
promoted by these organizations, the protocol could halt the development of
genetic engineering and biotechnology.
Actual negotiations begin on Monday, but Greenpeace et al have their events
planned for Saturday, including workshops, demonstrations and a big finale
Saturday night starring Ms. Barlow and Jeremy Rifkin, U.S. anti-beef
activist, biotech alarmist and world-class economic crank. Mr. Rifkin's
oeuvre includes The End of Work, a 1995 book in which he claimed technology
was creating mass unemployment�just as the United States was setting job
creation records because of technology.
Whenever the Council of Canadians wants to spook Canadians, the first thing
it does is call in an American fearmonger. A favourite last year was Samuel
S. Epstein, whose theories on the causes of cancer know no bounds. The need
to import talent from the U.S. is understandable, however, since the council
has a hard time rounding up any experts in Canada who are as willing to
twist fact and science as the likes of Messrs. Rifkin and Epstein.
A good example of Canada's junk science brain gap is the Council's release
on Tuesday of a study that alleged Health Canada's approval of genetically
modified crops was based on inadequate science. When the story of the study
hit the newswires, it sounded authoritative. "A group of prominent Canadian
scientists and academics," said a Southam News report, had formed GE-Alert,
a research agency that had found flaws in Health Canada's procedures and
While the study masqueraded as science, it was ridiculed as "silly" by one
scientist, dismissed by Health Canada, and called "unethical" by the dean of
Guelph University's agricultural college. Anyone who took the time to dig
into the Council of Canadians' deliberately obfuscatory Web pages would also
have a hard time establishing the prominence and biotech credentials of the
scientists who signed the study.
The lead scientist was Ann Clark, an expert in pasture management whose
expertise in genetic engineering is considered limited. Other members of the
group include an animal nutritionist, an anthropologist, a film and
television producer, a parasitologist, a biochemist and a philosopher whose
field is ethics. All good people, presumably, but most of them unqualified
to carry out any scientific assessment of Health Canada's approval
Bad science has never deterred activists. Greenpeace, for example, is making
the rounds of newspaper editorial boards and using its usual technique: If
the science isn't there, then make it up! At a meeting with the National
Post's board the other day, Greenpeace's biotech campaigner glibly said the
U.S. Department of Agriculture had found that farmers who use genetically
modified crops actually end up using more herbicides.
One of the Post's board members had actually read the USDA report, however,
and challenged Greenpeace.
The USDA had in fact reached the opposite conclusion. "The net result," it
said, "was a decrease in the overall pounds of herbicide applied."
Oh well, that's the Greenpeace credo: Misrepresentation in the name of the
cause is justified�and the only option when the evidence is overwhelmingly
in favour of genetic engineering. The USDA study found modified corn, cotton
and other products produced "significant decreases in herbicide use" and
"decreased insecticide use."
Over at CBC Radio, meanwhile, journalist Bob Carty�Greenpeace's official
media pipeline to the Canadian public�yesterday repeated the Greenpeace
version of the USDA study. Use of GM crops increases herbicide use, he said
during an appearance on the network's national This Morning show. Mr. Carty
fanned the flames of GM food fears, saying there was growing evidence that
Canadians and Americans were growing increasingly concerned about the
products. This has caught industry off guard, he said -- although he didn't
acknowledge his own role in creating alarm. In reports last year, Mr. Carty
and his colleagues compared genetic engineering to Nazi experiments, linked
the industry to Agent Orange and nuclear war, called beef hormones "crack
for cows," interviewed known kooks, and uncritically reported on the work of
a British scientist whose study on modified potatoes had been dismissed by
Britain's scientific community.
So that's what's coming over the next week in Montreal. Later, we'll get to
the Biosafety Protocol.
US OPPOSES PRIOR NOTICE FOR GM CROP SHIPMENTS
January 19, 2000
WASHINGTON -- David Sandalow, assistant secretary of state for oceans,
environment and science, was cited as telling reporters Wed. that the United
States strongly opposes any attempt to require exporters to provide advance
notice of shipments of genetically modified crops and that such a
requirement would "disrupt world food trade without (providing) significant
The story notes that developing countries plan to push for the notification
requirement in upcoming environmental talks.
Sandalow said the United States supports "advance informed agreements" for
shipments of GMOs, such as seeds, that will be directly introduced into the
environment, but that genetically modified crops destined for food, feed and
processing do not fit that criteria.
On another contentious issue, the Miami Group strongly opposes efforts by
the European Union to address food safety concerns in the Biosafety
An EU proposal to require documentation so genetically modified crops can be
traced from field to port would require "billions of dollars of new
investment," Sandalow said.