Free trade with Europe in GM crops: A CETA deal-breaker?

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A potentially serious obstacle to completing the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and the European Union has received limited attention: genetically modified (GM) crops.

Dr. Lauren Baker of the Toronto Food Policy Council, at a February 2012 international workshop exploring CETA, noted that the EU has a policy of zero tolerance for GM organisms.   Canadian grain and oilseed growers who want to export to the EU currently find it very difficult to prove that their crops are not contaminated by GM crops grown nearby.

The Canadian Agri-Food Trade Alliance (CAFTA), which represents canola, barley, beef, pork and wheat exporters, is lobbying for EU acceptance of "low-level presence" of GM organisms as part of CETA. CAFTA's Executive Director, Kathleen Sullivan, was in Brussels on October 18 when Prime Minister Stephen Harper and EU President José Manuel Barroso announced agreement in principle on CETA. Her organization issued a press release saying "CAFTA fully supports this deal, which we expect will expand agriculture and food exports to the EU by an incredible $1.5 billion dollars a year."

How credible is this expectation? The CETA Technical Summary, available on the website of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, "notes the importance… of cooperating on low-level presence." With regard to canola, it says that "Canada leveraged the CETA negotiations to get agreement with the EU on a parallel letter to demonstrate the EU's commitment to ensuring the efficient processing of canola applications and the expeditious movement of these proposals through the EU approval process."

Under CETA, Canada and the EU would create an overall CETA Trade Committee and a subcommittee or dialogue on "biotechnology market access." One can anticipate that government trade officials will be flying back and forth across the Atlantic to discuss an acceptable level of GM contamination of crop exports.

The Canadian Biotechnology Action Network website warns that "the push for an acceptance of GM products in the EU represents a lowering of environmental and health standards." The Network calls for "export strategies that raise the bar."

The likelihood of the European public accepting GM food crops is low, given ongoing concerns about risks to human health. On October 21, the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility released an international statement entitled No scientific consensus on GMO safety. The 230 signatories of this statement -- including 12 Canadian scientists and doctors -- "strongly reject claims by GM seed developers and some scientists, commentators, and journalists that there is a 'scientific consensus' on GMO safety and that the debate on this topic is 'over'."

The scientists' statement notes that studies in which one group of animals is fed GM food and another group is fed an equivalent non-GM diet are rare, but "some have revealed toxic effects or signs of toxicity in the GM-fed animals." It points out that the American Medical Association's Council on Science and Public Health has acknowledged "a small potential for adverse events … due mainly to horizontal gene transfer, allergenicity, and toxicity." The statement concludes that even a "small potential for adverse events" could be significant, given the widespread exposure of human and animal populations to GM crops.

The statement further notes that GM crops containing biopesticides may harm non-target and beneficial organisms. It points out that an international agreement, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, has been ratified by 166 governments (including the EU) with the aim of protecting biodiversity from these risks. Under the Cartagena Protocol, governments may take precautionary measures against these risks, even in the absence of scientific certainty.

Canadians also have concerns about the science underlying GM crops. A December 2012 survey conducted by Nanos Research and released to CBC News asked 1,000 respondents how much they trust scientists quoted in the news on four scientific topics: new energy technologies, medicines, climate change and GM crops. CBC News reported that, of these four topics, Canadians had the lowest level of trust in what scientists say about GM crops: 45 per cent trust what researchers say, but 44 per cent do not.

Time will tell if the Government of Canada will persuade the EU to accept GM-contaminated crops, and how much of a deal-breaker this will be in terms of finalizing CETA.

Ole Hendrickson is a forest ecologist and current president of the Ottawa River Institute, a non-profit charitable organization based in the Ottawa Valley.

Photo: reflets de vert/flickr

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