Testy, Testy

Prince Charles started sowing the seeds of dissent before he blew into Saskatchewan this April. The province is the heartland of the Canadian genetically modified crop industry. The prince is a critic of GMOs. In an essay published in The Globe and Mail, Charles Philip Arthur George Mountbatten-Windsor went so far as to encourage Canadian farmers to embrace sustainable agriculture and turn their backs on chemically dependent farming, including GM crops.

Still, the Prince of Wales enjoyed the royal treatment from Ottawa during his recent visit. In contrast, University of Guelph researcher Ann Clark had the carpet pulled from under her by Health Canada, when it took the bizarre step of publicly rebuking a study written by the Canadian GM food critic.

Clark's study, "Food Safety of GM Crops in Canada: Toxicity and Allergenicity," was written on behalf of a coalition of Canadian scientists, called Genetic Engineering (GE) Alert. "Food Safety" claims that 70 per cent of the GM crops approved by Health Canada were not subjected to any lab or animal toxicity testing. Health Canada weakly argues that the claim "is not true."

The dispute centres around genetically altered proteins in GM seeds. GE Alert claims that Health Canada doesn't test protein toxicity because, when oil is made from canola, the proteins are removed. However, the coalition says, the genetically altered proteins are used as animal feed and should be tested.

It's easy to see why Clark gives the government indigestion. Another GE Alert report - "What Is Sound Science?" - criticizes Health Canada for its "virtual absence of countervailing government funding to assess GE risks." It accuses Ottawa of being a "tireless advocate for biotechnology," at international trade meetings. It chides Ottawa for focussing on whether GM plants are "substantially equivalent" to non-GM crops. It calls for independent scientists to assess the agronomic, economic, environmental and health risks of GM crops. It summarizes the list of scientific critics of GM technology. It names names.

This report was submitted last year to an expert panel on biotechnology. The Royal Society of Canada had convened the panel in order to make recommendations that would improve the safety of food products developed through genetic engineering. Clark wrote, "The current approach to GE risk assessment confers upon the applicant the extraordinary advantage of being not simply the sole source of information to be assessed, but the arbiter of what kinds of information to provide in the first place. The fox is not simply the guardian, but the architect of the hen house." Ouch.

Health Canada's rebuke of the researcher seems especially odd, given that the lengthy report of The Royal Society of Canada confirms most of GE Alert's complaints. It states that the panel was "strongly critical of the inadequate levels of government support for independent research on the safety of food biotechnology." It also calls for a moratorium on the farming of GM fish. It says substantial equivalence is "scientifically unjustifiable." It urges Health Canada to adopt the "precautionary principle," as the foundation of its regulatory process - something GM critics have argued for years.

For now, the Chrétien government continues to serve industry interests. Recently, a meeting was held in Ottawa to define the international trade rules for GM food exports. There, Canada - along with the U.S. - opposed the modest proposal to label GM foods. Such a position leads one to wonder what Ottawa will do to institute testing that will ensure dangerous products and practices are banned.

Penni Mitchell is the editor of Herizons, Canada's largest feminist magazine. A different version of this article appeared in The Winnipeg Free Press.

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