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Sterile Seeds, Canada's Impotence

Why was Africa's 'Father of Biosafety' hassled at our nation's gates?

Murray Dobbin 31 May

Murray Dobbin is an author, commentator and journalist. He is the author of five books and is a former columnist with Financial Post and Winnipeg Free Press. He is a board member of Canadians for Tax Fairness and on the advisory council of the Rideau Institute. He lives in Powell River, BC.

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Blocked: Dr. Tewolde Egziabher

Two weeks ago, a group of self-appointed guardians of Canada’s well-being released their final report on “The Future of North America.” The task force that wrote it is promoting some extremely radical proposals for the integration of Canada, the US and Mexico.

The news of this corporate elite’s final blueprint was pushed off the front pages by the struggle in the House of Commons over the budget vote and the question of a spring election. Ironically, if the recommendations of the task force are ever implemented, Parliament would become largely irrelevant. The recommendations call for Canada and Mexico to effectively relinquish their sovereignty in critical areas of public policy including food safety, energy, defence, immigration, international trade, and control over their rivers and culture.

It is a plan for the dismantling of Canada and the neutering of its government.

A plan, of course, is just a plan until it’s implemented. The problem is, this plan is being slowly implemented by stealth by parts of the federal bureaucracy who are already fully committed to its broad principles.

‘Harmonizing’ food policies

One of those principles is that Canada and the US “harmonize” food safety policies. The latest example of this de facto policy is the refusal of Canada to grant a visa to one of the world’s foremost experts in the area of food safety: Ethiopia’s Dr. Tewolde Egziabher, often referred to as the father of the UN’s Biosafety Protocol.

Dr. Tewolde has been to Canada many times. The political denial of a visa to this renowned scientist is one of the crudest abuses of power the Canadian government has ever exercised and its purpose is transparent.

Dr Tewolde is one of the developing world’s most effective and determined opponents of genetically modified crops and is a champion of African countries who also oppose them. He is the director-general of the Ethiopian-headquartered Environmental Protection Authority, and is Africa's chief negotiator for the UN Convention on Biodiversity. The visa he was seeking would have allowed him to attend a meeting in Montreal for negotiations relating to the Cartegena Protocol on Biosafety, an international agreement to regulate trade in genetically engineered organisms.

The African scientist has publicly clashed with Canadian and US officials in the past and was coming to Montreal specifically to ensure that GE seeds and food products would be labelled under the agreement. He also wants companies and governments to accept liability when their seeds lead to GE contamination.

‘Suicide’ seeds

Canada’s efforts to deny his participation in the critical meeting follow a similar move by Canadian bureaucrats in February over the issue of so-called “terminator seeds.” Terminator or “suicide” seeds are genetically engineered so that seeds from the resulting crop are dead. They cannot be planted. They threaten bio-diversity through contamination and they threaten the livelihood of tens of millions of poor peasant farmers who traditionally save seed to plant their next crop. The only beneficiaries from this perverse technology are the large transnational corporations who develop them. Canada attempted, at the last moment, to sabotage the protocol much to the anger and shock of other delegations. Canada’s efforts were stopped by the EU and several third world countries.

There was so much outrage over the Liberal government’s visa denial -- some African delegates purportedly threatened a demonstration -- that the decision was eventually reversed but so late in the day that Dr. Tewolde was only able to attend last day of the three day conference.

US pulling strings?

There is strong suspicion that Canada is acting on behalf of the US which has been pushing hard to get GMO food accepted. The US has launched a WTO challenge against the European Union on the issue. According to Tewolde: "We suspect that Africa is high on the agenda for the US's next push for GMO acceptance.” The African countries are especially angered by the US argument that European opposition to GMOs will exacerbate third world hunger. Tewolde points out that: “Besides paying royalties, we would lose food sovereignty," saying such a development would actually worsen poverty and hunger. In 1995, the United Nations decided to locate the Secretariat for the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in Montreal. But one of the requirements for hosting any UN agency is easy access for foreign experts to attend intergovernmental discussions. That means the absence of the kind of blatant political interference just engaged in by the federal government. More incidents like this one could easily jeopardize Montreal’s status as a UN city.

This issue falls smack dab in the middle of Paul Martin’s plate. One of the few areas he has staked out as his own personal priority is attention to the plight of the third world, and Africa in particular. His government’s appalling behaviour suggests that hypocrisy and expediency rule the day.

Murray Dobbin's 'State of the Nation' column appears twice monthly on The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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