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Forget about labels, just eat what Ottawa puts in front of you
Tuesday, February 13, 2001

Last week the highly regarded Royal Society of Canada issued a report that raises serious concerns about the regulations and safety of genetically modified foods. At the federal government's request, these respected scientists had investigated the messy details of exactly how genetically modified (GM) food gets the okay in Canada; their revealing and critical analysis was titled, "Elements of Precaution." They confirmed that Canadians have been treated as human guinea pigs. Worse, the Canadian International Development Agency has been subsidizing the St. Louis-based giant multinational, Monsanto, to the tune of more than $280,000 to grow genetically modified cotton and corn in China.

"...independent scientists found the usual government-approval practice of "substantial equivalence" to be "scientifically unjustifiable.""

The train has clearly left the station. And yet, we seem no closer to being able to choose whether we want to be onboard, or whether to opt out of this involuntary genetic experiment. In fact, tomorrow, a Montreal activist will go to court because he tried to alert consumers of the potential content of genetically modified ingredients in food by sticking labels on the products.

Don't we have the right to know such things?

Our government pretends to use science to protect our health. But the independent scientists found the usual government-approval practice of "substantial equivalence" to be "scientifically unjustifiable." (Roughly put, "substantial equivalence" translates into: It looks, tastes and nourishes like a tomato; therefore, it is a tomato, despite genetic tampering.)

The very same government regulators who approve these foods for Canadian consumption are also responsible for promoting biotechnology. The report notes that this is clearly a conflict of interest.

As well, the scientists are concerned about questions regarding the health and environmental risks of genetically modified foods. The Royal Society report called for the "implementation of an independent process of auditing the scientific and ethical aspects of regulatory decision-making."

When the Royal Society Report first came out, it was greeted with a standard congratulatory note ("The Government of Canada welcomes . . ."), which was hastily switched to a chilly rejection of the work. The Health Canada web site, which at first proudly displayed congratulations from Minister of Health Allan Rock, Minister of the Environment David Anderson and Agriculture Minister Lyle Van Clief, suddenly and summarily pulled the message. Oops!

The debate is about public safety, but at its heart are two critical issues: government accountability and freedom of choice for Canadians.
Whose responsibility is it to protect and inform the citizens of Canada if not our government? Nearly every Canadian would prefer to know whether the food we feed our children has been genetically altered. Yet the Canadian government has refused to impose mandatory labeling of genetically modified products and, instead, suggests a voluntary process in co-operation with industry. Why is this a crisis? Because already, unknown to most Canadians, about 70 per cent of processed food on grocery store shelves now contains genetically modified ingredients.

"Public interest organizations are attempting to counteract the government's inaction, and industry's resistance, with a public-awareness campaign to educate consumers about genetically modified products silently entering the marketplace."

Industry has resisted identifying foods as being modified. Not a single food is labeled as such in Canada. Industry has even opposed voluntary labeling that states, "GM Free." The Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors -- Canada's grocers -- announced last year that they would sticker over product labels claiming to be free of genetically modified products until a Canadian federal standard on labeling has been created. Food companies are promoting to government the idea that foods containing as much as 5 per cent modified ingredients could be labeled "GM Free." Without such a euphemism, they say, labels that a product was "GM Free" will be "misleading." This is clearly absurd.

There is irony in the biotech industry's own current campaign promoting a genetically modified product known as "golden rice" that "could help prevent blindness and infection in millions of children," according to a TV ad. Well, it could, perhaps. Except that according to Greenpeace, a child would have to eat about 16 pounds of cooked rice daily to obtain that benefit. Greenpeace has complained to the Advertising Standards Council.

Public interest organizations are attempting to counteract the government's inaction, and industry's resistance, with a public-awareness campaign to educate consumers about genetically modified products silently entering the marketplace. Some of their efforts have attracted the attention of law enforcement officials and criminal charges have been laid. Thus, we may even be deprived of this voluntary citizens' initiative.

Tomorrow, Martin Petit, the activist from the Citizens' Voluntary Labeling Collective, goes to court to face charges of criminal mischief (trying to label products on their potential content of genetically modified ingredients). He's also charged with assault, for refusing to leave a store peacefully. But by failing to give consumers the kind of information that Mr. Petit was trying to offer, the government is neglecting its mandate to protect the public. Activists are only trying to fill the void, and are being thwarted at every turn. The government is in lock step with big money, the biotech industry -- and it, so far, is successfully denying the public the right to make an educated choice when it comes to what food we consume.

When the charges in Montreal are heard, many will be watching closely to see if the right to freedom of expression will be affirmed, especially when needed to inform and protect an unsuspecting public. Last year's case in the United Kingdom of 28 Greenpeace volunteers who took action over genetically modified crops should be considered a benchmark: They were found to be acting for the public good to protect the environment and were acquitted of criminal charges of theft and public mischief.

Now that Greenpeace, the citizens' labeling group and other organizations have, in effect, seen their concerns endorsed in the findings of the Royal Society of Canada, it's time for government to remember who it serves.

Clayton Ruby is a Toronto lawyer.