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Food Fight: Canada vs. Europe

We're forcing GMOs on people who fear them.

By Murray Dobbin and Ellen Gould 28 Jan 2008 |

Murray Dobbin writes his State of the Nation column twice monthly for The Tyee. Ellen Gould is a researcher and writer on food and policy issues.

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French anti-GMO activist Jose Bove.

Challenging Europeans over their right to choose what food they grow and eat seems like a lousy way to make friends across the Atlantic. But this is exactly what Canada has done by giving the European Union a deadline of Feb. 11 to change its policies on genetically modified foods.

Canada wants to open up the European market to imports of Canadian genetically modified products, particularly canola oil.

The big stick Canada can wield is a November 2006 World Trade Organization ruling. The WTO decreed in a complaint brought by the U.S., Canada and Argentina that the EU had violated its WTO obligations by creating "undue delays" in the approval of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

If the EU does not comply with the WTO ruling, it could have to pay the price in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars in trade sanctions. Europe has been given what is considered a reasonable period to comply, but time is now running out.

Europeans won't be bullied

This is no minor issue in Europe. The European Commission has been surveying attitudes towards GMOs in all member states for 15 years now, and despite intense marketing efforts by international agribusiness, the opposition to GMOs only seems to be growing. The EU's pollsters have discovered a "striking" decline in acceptance of GM foods over recent years even though Europeans are expressing support for other uses of biotechnology.

Helen Holder, GMO campaign coordinator at Friends of the Earth Europe, told The Tyee that a triumphalist "We won!" North American attitude over the WTO decision will not wash in Europe. Holder argued the panel's narrow ruling on technical grounds did not mean Canada and the U.S. could bully Europeans into accepting GM food. She pointed out that the WTO never concluded that GMOs were safe.

Holder said that if the spirit of the era was "the market must decide," then the answer seemed clear: the European market had largely decided against GMOs. She pointed to consumer-driven decisions by major European food chains such as Tesco to not stock genetically-modified foods.

Sarkozy sides with Bove

The depth of feeling in Europe over this issue and the strange bedfellows it makes were evident in a surprise move by French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Jan. 10. At the very time EU and North American trade officials were working out how Europe could conform with the WTO decision, Sarkozy's government came up with a new ban on a Monsanto corn variety that had previously been approved for cultivation in France. Trade bureaucrats on both sides of the Atlantic must have felt like they were trying to herd cats.

Remember this is the same Sarkozy -- nicknamed "Sarko the American" -- who came into office as the right wing candidate promising to improve relations with the U.S. Yet there he was, apparently siding with the radical anti-GMO campaigner Jose Bove and throwing gas on the fire of a transatlantic trade dispute.

Sarkozy's decision allowed Bove to end his eight-day hunger strike against cultivation of GM corn in France. It means the only GM crop currently being grown in France is now banned, a tremendous victory for Bove and France's GM-free campaigners.

New studies, more European GM bans

Sarkozy's ban came on the heels of a report by the French government's scientific authority on GMOs. This report cited new scientific evidence that the GM corn might have a negative impact on insects and its pollen could be dispersed further than previously thought. The report also said new studies suggest it is impossible not to have cross-pollination between GM and non-GM fields.

The scientists advising the French government did not all agree with the conclusions the report drew from the new studies. Sarkozy acknowledged this scientific uncertainty but said "with the principle of precaution at stake, I am making a major political decision to carry our country to the forefront of the debate on the environment."

Canada and U.S. trade negotiators working to expand markets for GMOs don't only have a problem with individual European Union states like France. Although they can get a sympathetic ear from European Commission trade officials, the environment commissioner Stavro Dimas is proving to be a major headache for them. On Jan. 21 Dimas was accused of snubbing the U.S. trade representative when he declined to meet with her to discuss the GM dispute.

New science, leaked fears

Dimas is the EU's point person in getting individual member states to conform with EU law on GMOs. That means in theory Dimas should be working to overcome existing bans on GM crops in Hungary, Austria, and now France. He seems headed, though, in the opposite direction. Dimas has proposed European-wide bans on two GM corn varieties that the European food safety authority had recommended for approval in 2005.

Dimas, like Sarkozy, is pointing to new science about the risks of GMOs to justify bans. In his leaked recommendations to the European Commission, Dimas refers to studies that suggest potential negative impacts of the GM corn varieties. These include risks for species like Monarch butterflies, problems for stream ecosystems, and variations in toxin concentrations that "may lead to unpredicted interactions with the environment."

The European biotech industry immediately responded to Dimas's recommendations, claiming that the studies he relied on actually favoured GMOs or involved "sloppy" research.

Canadians equally opposed

Despite the relative lack of news coverage of GMOs in Canada, the most recent survey done for the federal government on Canadian attitudes shows they are remarkably similar to those of Europeans. The 2006 Decima survey found: "The main aspect of biotechnology that engenders concern is GM food. Overall attitudes toward GM food tend to be more negative than positive."

But unlike Europeans, Canadians have not had national governments willing to reflect their views in legislation. In sharp contrast with the EU's tough regulations, Canada's labelling standard for GM foods is voluntary, and has proven to be as ineffective as critics warned it would be. This despite the 2003 Decima poll showing 88 per cent of Canadians surveyed wanted mandatory labelling.

As well as the WTO case and other trade action Canada has taken to expand markets for existing GMOs, Canada is notorious internationally for trying to undermine the de facto moratorium on "terminator seeds" in the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. Terminator seeds have been hugely controversial because they are deliberately designed to be sterile after first harvest.

Ag Minister Ritz: 'Terminator' friendly

Gerry Ritz, Canada's current agriculture minister, seems to be favourably disposed to Canadian approval of "genetic use restriction technologies," the form of GMO that includes "Terminator" seeds. Ritz has responded to concerns about the technology by echoing the arguments made by the biotech industry. He has written that while it is true that this technology "could impact farmers' ability to save seed for cultivation the next year" he argues that on the positive side "the same technologies could prevent the unwanted spread of seeds and pollen in the environment."

Ritz dismisses worries about the monopolistic control the technology would transfer to transnational seed companies by saying anti-competitive behaviour could be dealt with by Canada's Competition Bureau. Given the bureau's track record this is truly faint hope.

Although it is a tough slog in this country, Canadians concerned about GMOs have found some champions for their cause. Some examples of organizational efforts are: CBAN, the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, Greenpeace Canada's campaign for mandatory labelling, and RightOnCanada's online campaign for federal legislation to ban terminator seeds.

In Parliament last year, the NDP introduced Bill C448, which would have banned terminator technology. Despite this attention and Canadians' convictions, both the Liberals and the Harper Conservatives are right where you would expect them to be: on the side of big business.

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