Richard Wolfson, PhD
If the government won't take responsibility for separating industry profit from safety, it's up to consumers.
Our federal government has abdicated its responsibility for protecting public health in favor of promoting profits for international chemical giants. This was the message from a "Food Safety and Public Health Forum" sponsored by the Canadian Health Coalition in Ottawa last October.
John Verrall, from the United Kingdom (UK) Food Ethics Council, pointed out that biotechnology allows the entire world’s food supply to be controlled by a handful of biotech giants. This is dangerous. The agenda of industry is not to protect the public, but to produce profits. The mad cow disease crisis in Europe showed consumers they can’t blindly trust government, which has become controlled by industry. Canada’s tainted blood scandal, which affected 60,000 lives, was another deregulation catastrophe.
Profit Before Safety
John Harvey, editor of the UK’s Organic Farming Journal, said the main cause of food poisoning in Europe is not isolated failures of fridges or hygiene lapses, but companies systematically sidelining safety to reduce expenses.
Another important safety problem is overuse of antibiotics in animals, which is a major cause of antibiotic-resistant diseases. Pharmaceutical companies make enormous money selling these drugs to farmers.
Jeffrey Jenkins, a legal expert in international food trades, said the World Trade Organization (WTO) is being used to force countries to accept imports from other countries, even against their will. The WTO fined the European Union $180 million for rejecting hormone-laden beef from USA. The organization said that there was insufficient evidence showing hormone-laden beef is unsafe, in spite of links to cancer.
No Experience Necessary
Canada’s Food and Drugs Act is being systematically dismantled and deregulated. The recently instituted Canadian Food Safety and Inspection Act, which transferred food safety to the Ministry of Agriculture, is a clear conflict of interest. The Ministry of Agriculture cannot properly protect the public because its role is to support industry, which views safety as "red tape."
We are moving away from the precautionary principle, built into the Food and Drugs Act, which states that products need be proven safe before they are marketed. Under proposed new legislation (currently referred to as Bill C-80), products can be marketed unless there is explicit proof of harm. In this framework, products can be sold until there are sufficient "dead bodies" for the public to notice.
According to researcher Ken Rubin, Bill C-80 will limit the ability of the Minister of Health to act to ensure our safety. The other ministers who are more concerned with industry and trade, will be able to prioritize corporate profit above human protection. Brill-Edwards said government should ensure we don’t all become "road kill on the highway to corporate profit."
Daniel Dotto, representing Consumer Health Protection for the European Commission, referred to the string of food crises in Europe (like mad cow, Coca-Cola and dioxins in Belgian chickens), showing what happens when governments loosen control on food safety. When the officials who protect public health also promote industry, health
The Gene Giants
Michael Hansen, PhD, from the Consumer Policy Institute in New York, explained that the main use of biotechnology is not to benefit consumers, but to increase herbicide sales. In 1996, 23 percent of biotech crops (covering 2.8 million acres) were engineered to be herbicide resistant. By 1998, 71 percent of biotech crops (28 million hectares) were herbicide resistant. Herbicide-resistant crops allow more use of herbicides to kill weeds without killing the crops.
The biotech giants are also the major herbicide producers (Monsanto, Novartis and Dupont). They use biotechnology largely to promote sales of their own products. These corporations have also bought up the major seed companies, which gives them even greater control over our food supply.
The Honourable Eugene Whelan, recently retired Senator and former Minister of Agriculture, said Agriculture Canada has become increasingly run by individuals who are not experts in agriculture and are controlled by industry. Whelan, who attended recent meetings of Codex (the international food regulating body), described Codex as the "phoniest organization in the world." Codex representatives were not scientists. Most had no background in agriculture or food, and were heavily lobbied by industry. He described how the US manipulated the proceedings as the "dirtiest politics in the world."
He said great advances in seeds could be made through conventional breeding, without crossing genes between species. Whelan also felt strongly that consumer protection should be the priority of research, not corporate profit.
The New World War
Craig Boljkovac of the World Wildlife Fund called for more accountability in government and Codex. At recent Codex meetings, Canadian delegates would not support the elimination of dangerous toxins (PCBs, dioxins and furans) from the environment and would not support labelling of genetically engineered foods. We need to make our representatives accountable to the public.
Brill-Edwards said we are fighting a war. The previous generation fought WWII. We are fighting an even greater war–to maintain our health and existence in the face of domination by huge shortsighted corporations, who are blinded to profit at the expense of the safety of the entire human race.
Canadians have made some headway in the battle. BGH has been stopped in Canada and at Codex because of consumer protest. GE foods are being labeled or stopped in Japan, the European Union, Brazil and other countries. In spite of insurmountable odds, we can take on the gene giants and win. We need to do it. There is no one else.