by Hannah Renglich
Slowly but surely, the Canadian government is beginning to talk about genetic engineering. Although the House of Commons is divided predictably along party lines when it comes to their stance on genetically modified organisms, it is significant that they are debating and discussing genetic engineering at all.
February 9th, 2011 marked the first parliamentary vote and national discussion on genetic engineering, as Bill C-474 was defeated. Privately tabled by NDP Agriculture critic Alex Atamanenko, if passed, the bill would have required that an analysis of potential harm to export markets be conducted before the sale of any new genetically engineered seed is permitted. In the optimistic words of Lucy Sharratt, Coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN), “the bill itself was lost, but Members of Parliament are now recognizing that GE can cause a problem to farmers.” The overturning of the bill by 176 to 97 means that the status quo continues, with the strong voice of the biotechnology lobby reflected in the House, and farmers left to fend for themselves.
“It’s crazy that the economic risks to farmers are not considered before GE crops are put on the market,” said Genevieve Grossenbacher, a young Quebecoise farmer speaking for the Canadian Organic Growers. “It’s farmers who pay the costs of GE contamination, not the biotech companies.” Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, who opposed Bill C-474 and refused to take a telephone interview with GFR, interprets the situation differently, writing, “Our Government understands that in order to be competitive, our farmers deserve timely access to cutting edge technology.” Yet, as MP Atamanenko commented, “the fallacy is that we’re told GE crops increase yield and in fact they don’t.”
Genetic engineering poses tremendous potential harm for the economy, the environment, and human and animal health. Both Atamanenko and Sharratt agree that up to 80% of international customers would stop buying wheat from Canada based on the fear of contamination, while genetically engineered alfalfa will not be accepted at all. When contamination occurs, no one compensates the farmers. In 2009, Canada’s flax exports to Europe were quarantined due to unexpected contamination, which led to significant economic hardship for Canadian producers. The Flax Council of Canada insisted that this was “a regulatory issue, not a safety issue.” Yet, many critics doubt the safety of genetic engineering, with several animal studies from the American Academy of Environmental Medicine showing that there are serious health risks associated with genetically modified food consumption including infertility, immune dysregulation, accelerated aging, dysregulation of genes associated with cholesterol synthesis, insulin regulation, cell signalling, and protein formation, and changes in the liver, kidney, spleen and gastrointestinal system.
On January 27th, the US Department of Agriculture approved the plantings of genetically engineered alfalfa, in the face of widespread opposition from farmers and consumers. The inevitable contamination of genetically engineered alfalfa, which is perennial and bee-pollinated, threatens the organic industry in the US, and subsequently in Canada, where alfalfa is used as a cover crop as well as for pasture and animal feed. Once released, Monsanto’s genetically modified Roundup Ready Alfalfa will be impossible to contain or remove from the environment. Following the defeat of Bill C-474 and mounting public pressure, on March 2nd, Liberal members of the House of Commons tabled a motion for a moratorium on the approval of genetically modified alfalfa in Canada.
“At this point in our short history with genetic engineering,” says Lucy Sharratt, “we need to find a way so that farmers don’t have to mobilize and protest, which is what farmers had to do to stop GE wheat [in 2004]. That’s just unsustainable.” Vice President of the National Farmers Union, Colleen Ross, believes that “Our democracy has to work for farmers and consumers and not just for multinational biotech corporations.” Issues surrounding genetic engineering demand the active involvement of concerned citizens to prevent the biotechnology industry from guiding the government’s decisions, which will, “protect genetically engineered food even if Canadian consumers don’t want to eat it,” says Sharratt. “It’s our government’s responsibility to protect farmers.”
On March 10, the Agricultural Committee met with the intention of voting on the motion for the moratorium of genetically modified alfalfa; however, Conservative Members of Parliament purposefully delayed the vote. First objecting to prioritizing the motion ahead of others, Conservative members entertained a full hour of debate and discussion before the meeting time ran out. A press release from CBAN states that with the presence of supportive Liberal, NDP, and Bloc members, the motion would have been approved to move to the House of Commons had the Conservatives not delayed their comments. “It makes no sense that Conservatives delayed a decision when we have consensus in the farming community that GM alfalfa needs to be stopped,” said Ann Slater of the Ecological Farmers of Ontario, “Its urgent that our politicians do something real to protect us from the huge threat of GM alfalfa. I hope Members of Parliament understand how urgently we need this moratorium.” The next Agricultural Committee meeting at which the moratorium would be discussed could be as early as March 22nd.
Readers interested in the GE debate can make their voices heard by contacting their Member of Parliament or visit the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network website for breaking news and resources on genetic engineering in the country.
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Bill C-474 VOTE RESULTS:
Davies (Vancouver Kingsway)
Davies (Vancouver East)
Guimond (Rimouski-Neigette—Témiscouata—Les Basques)
Harris (St. John’s East)
Martin (Winnipeg Centre)
Martin (Sault Ste. Marie)
Total: — 97
Cannan (Kelowna—Lake Country)
Duncan (Vancouver Island North)
Duncan (Etobicoke North)
Harris (Cariboo—Prince George)
Kamp (Pitt Meadows—Maple Ridge—Mission)
Keddy (South Shore—St. Margaret’s)
Kenney (Calgary Southeast)
Kramp (Prince Edward—Hastings)
MacKay (Central Nova)
Moore (Port Moody—Westwood—Port Coquitlam)
Moore (Fundy Royal)
Weston (West Vancouver—Sunshine Coast—Sea to Sky Country)
Weston (Saint John)
Total: — 176
Hannah Renglich recently completed her master’s degree in natural resources and peace with a focus on food sovereignty at the U.N.-mandated University for Peace. When not engaged in community food projects and sustainable agriculture, she makes music, drinks tea, and knits curiosities. Hannah is delighted to be covering food politics and food activism for Good Food Revolution.