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Governments Say No to GMOs

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On July 11, 2001, the Star Phoenix of Saskatoon reported that the Saskatchewan government was cutting its research contributions to the biotechnology program at Saskatoon Crop Development Centre (CDC).

On July 11, 2001, the Star Phoenix of Saskatoon reported that the Saskatchewan government was cutting its research contributions to the biotechnology program at Saskatoon Crop Development Centre (CDC). Could this change in direction signal the decline of transgenic agriculture in Canada? The Saskatchewan government is quick to point out that the controversy over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) was not a factor in its decision to cut its biotechnology funding.

Nevertheless, GMO critics believe that negative market forces are the direct result of a global backlash against the technology.

Proponents of transgenic agriculture see recent cutbacks as an opportunity for the situation to cool down before introducing more GMO varieties. Recent developments, however, reveal that transgenic crops may be more trouble than they are worth. The following crops have been taken off the market:

  • 200,000 bushels of genetically modified Triffid flax seed were recalled from Prairie farms due to fears of contamination with non-engineered varieties in Europe. It was de-registered on April 1, 2001.

  • Monsanto's Quest canola was replaced in Canada because the company found it contained trace levels of their Roundup Ready trait, which is not registered for use in Japan or the USA, Canada's largest customers of canola oil and meal. This was primarily seen as a trade issue with the potential to damage export markets.

  • Monsanto's NatureMark or NatureLeaf potatoes, engineered to resist the Colorado potato beetle, were removed from commercial sales in time for the 2001 planting season. This was due to lack of sales, mostly to processors like McCain, who has stated it will not buy GE potatoes.

  • The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has rejected the use of Aventis CropSciences' StarLink corn for human use. The variety, engineered to produce its own insecticide and registered for animal feed use since 1998, made its way into taco shells last fall, triggering massive food recalls across the world as well as embarrassing trade problems. The EPA was concerned with the potential for the Cry9C protein to cause allergic reactions in humans.

These examples bring me to the main point of this article: while it is important to demand labelling for genetically engineered products, what is more important is to strive for a complete ban of these crops in our food system. Stopping at labelling is an admission that transgenic foods are here to stay. Besides, it's not clear how labelling rules will be enforced and whether they will provide real choices for consumers. Labelling also doesn't address environmental issues such as genetic pollution (outcrossing with related plant varieties, the contamination of organic crops with engineered ones, the appearance of weeds with multiple herbicide tolerance as well as pesticide-tolerant insects), the effects of transgenic crops on non-target species and, finally, the long-term effects of GMOs on human health. Labelling, while it does create short-term headaches for the industry, implicitly sanctions the use of a technology that is at best experimental, unmanageable and not necessarily the best solution to the problems facing agriculture today.

The fact is that market forces in countries such as Canada, Australia, Japan, Korea and the European Union are pushing the producers of GE crops to rethink their position. In Britain, Unilever the world's largest food manufacturing company decided to pull the plug on genetically engineered ingredients in its foods. This news encouraged Nestle, Cadbury and Tesco (Britain's largest supermarket chain) to also phase out their GM products. These decisions imply that for companies like Unilever, the global sourcing of GM-free crops such as soy and corn will encourage more farmers to plant them instead of transgenic varieties. These are signs that public pressure works.

Despite the claims of the biotech industry that the road to the future is paved with genetically engineered miracles, it is important that we insist on GMO-free products and that we demand a commitment from our federal and provincial governments to increase funding for sustainable food production.

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