Canadian Consumers Concerned About Biotechnology and GMO Food

by Aaron Freeman
Reprinted from the Hill Times, Canada’s parliamentary newspaper, November 2001

Consumers can be forgiven for being cynical about biotechnology. After all, it’s hard to know who to trust when there’s no clear line between the biotech industry, government and organizations that claim to be on the side of consumers.

Consider the government’s funding of biotechnology. A Statistics Canada report found that the federal government spent $314 million on biotechnology in 1998.

Many agencies make contributions to biotech industry coffers. The Canadian International Development Agency, for example, spent $280,000 to push genetically modified (GM) corn in China, and Industry Canada, from 1994 to 2000, gave the industry lobby group BIOTECanada $6 million to improve the image of biotechnology.

But nowhere is the government’s pro-biotech bias more evident than at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), which operates under Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. While the agency is charged with regulating biotech foods, it is also a major promoter and financial booster of the industry, placing itself in an untenable conflict of interest.

One of the favourite recipients of CFIA biotech subsidies is the Food Biotechnology Communications Network (FBCN), which claims to be “Canada’s leading information source for balanced, science-based facts about food biotechnology and its impact on our food system.”

FBCN’s booklet, A Growing Appetite for Information, bills itself as a “bias-free zone” on biotech issues in Canada. It contains snapshots of new biotech products, espousing the benefits of each. When it comes to the issue of mandatory labelling — which would allow consumers to choose whether or not to consume GM foods — the booklet parrots industry messages, suggesting that voluntary labelling is the way to go.

The Growing Appetite publication was financed by CFIA, although there is no recognition of the public agency’s funding anywhere in the booklet. CFIA also funds FBCN’s 1-800 information line, web site and other promotional materials.

CFIA doesn’t always work through intermediaries. In June 2000, the agency paid $300,000 to insert a supplement asserting the safety of GM foods in two of Canada’s largest consumer magazines, Canadian Living and Coup de Pouce.

The industry line, so promoted by government, is completely out of sync with consumers, who have a great deal of mistrust for GM foods and simply want to know whether a product contains GM products or not. A Pollara/Earnscliffe poll earlier this year, for example, found 94 percent of Canadians favour mandatory labelling.

Liberal MP Charles Caccia hoped to do something about this concern. He initiated a Private Member’s Bill, C-287, which would have required mandatory labelling of GM foods. But as the bill began gaining support from all corners of Parliament, the biotech industry rallied powerful Liberal allies to quash the initiative.

As the bill approached its second-reading vote, a letter signed by Agriculture Minister Lyle Vanclief, Health Minister Allan Rock, Industry Minister Brian Tobin and Trade Minister Pierre Pettigrew requested the Commons Health Committee to hold hearings on “the best options for meeting consumers’ information needs with respect to genetically modified foods.” The letter was a clear attempt to head off Caccia’s bill, with the tried-and-true avoidance strategy of asking for further study of an issue.

When Liberal MPs showed up in the House to vote on the bill on Oct. 17, a pamphlet urging MPs to “Vote against Bill C-287 and support Canada’s Agri-food business” was waiting for them on each of their desks. The pamphlet was published by various food industry associations. No one seems to know how it ended up on MPs’ desks in the House of Commons Chamber.

The strategies of Team Biotech worked, and the bill was defeated.

When a regulated industry has the inside track with the government that regulates it, it is consumers who are left on the outs. But don’t look to the Consumers’ Association of Canada (CAC) to expose this cosy relationship.

Growing Appetite was published jointly with CAC, which has been a leading opponent of mandatory labelling. Last year CAC head Jennifer Hillyard told a Commons committee that the CAC does “not take donations from industry, only from individuals.” But documents obtained by Canadian Health Coalition researcher Bradford Duplisea show that the group receives money from both Monsanto and the CFIA.

The CAC’s spokesperson on biotech until earlier this year was Lee Anne Murphy, who now works for Monsanto and is an FBCN board member.

CFIA bankrolls the CAC’s biotech efforts, including grants totaling $60,000 to cover such costs as consumer analysis of various legislative and regulatory efforts, and to pay for a full-time staff person to work on biotech. Agriculture Canada also gave CAC $20,000 to develop an information kit promoting biotech.

Both government and industry have invested huge sums on biotech. It’s a gamble they are hoping will pay off, but it won’t if consumers mistrust the technology and the players promoting it. Team Biotech hopes they can win through a massive PR initiative, but the revolving doors between watchdogs, regulators and the regulated will only serve to make consumers even more wary.

* Aaron Freeman is an Ottawa-based writer and a founding director of Democracy Watch, PO Box 821, Stn. B, Ottawa, Ont. K1P 5R1.

[From WS April/May 2002]

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