January 17, 2017
Regulation and Policy
Background: GM Regulation in Canada
Genetically engineered (also called genetically modified or GM) crops were first approved in Canada in 1995 without public debate. There is no labelling of GM foods on grocery store shelves and there is no consultation with the public before new GM foods are approved. Health Canada does not do its own testing of GM foods but relies on information submitted by the companies that want products approved. This process is summarized in the new GMO Inquiry report "Are GM foods better for consumers?" and is examined in more detail in the report "Are GM foods and crops well regulated?"
Canada does not consider the economic or social impacts of GM crops before they are allowed on the market.
The Canadian government does not specifically regulate the new science of genetic engineering (also called genetic modification), but captures GE foods and crops under the new category "Plants with Novel Traits" (and "Novel Foods") which includes GE but also crops produced by other technologies such as traditional breeding and mutagenesis (where chemicals and gamma-radiation are used to induce mutations in genes).
2009 Changes to Seed Regulations: The Canadian Food Inspection Agency succeeded with its " Seed Program Modernization". The new changes to seed regulations and the variety registration system in Canada could mean faster introduction of GE crops such as GE alfalfa and allow increased corporate control over the process. Click here to read our analysis of the changes. For more background and details you can read the guide to the consultations (pdf 12 pages).
Legalizing GM Food Contamination as "Low Level Presence" (LLP)
The Canadian government wants to allow a percent, 0.1% or higher, of our food to be contaminated with genetically modified (GM) foods that have not been approved by Health Canada for safe human consumption. The GM foods will have been approved for safety in at least one other country but not yet approved as safe by our own regulators. The federal government calls this “Low Level Presence” or LLP and argues that this “low level” of contamination from unapproved GM foods is not harmful.
Background on LLP
What is “Low Level Presence”? “Low Level Presence” (LLP) is the proposal to allow our food to be contaminated by a percent of genetically engineered foods that have not been approved for safe eating by Health Canada, but that have been approved for human consumption in at least one other country. LLP would change Canada’s existing “zero-tolerance” policy for such contamination. LLP is different from “adventitious presence” which is the industry term for contamination of our food by experimental GM crops and animals that have not been approved anywhere in the world.
Which other countries have LLP? Canada would be the first country in the world to adopt LLP for GM foods. Every country has “zero-tolerance” for contamination by GM foods that they have not approved as safe. In July 2011, the European Union allowed up to 0.1 percent of animal feed could be contaminated by GM grains that are not approved in the EU.
What is the Canadian government’s rationale for LLP? The grain industry operating in Canada wants other countries to establish LLP so that exports from Canada that are contaminated by GM foods are not rejected: “In the industry’s view, Canada could serve as a model to influence countries with trade-restrictive LLP policies by adopting alternative domestic LLP policy approaches.” (Agriculture Canada Power Point on LLP, emphasis added) Agriculture Canada also says that, “The potential for low-level presence to enter Canada is expected to increase in the future.” (FAQp5) As yet, no GM foods have been approved anywhere in the world that are not already approved in the US or Canada.
“If trace amounts of such unapproved genetically modified product are found in import shipments, in a country where the genetically modified crop is not approved, often times these imports will be rejected.” (FAQp5) “The unpredictability of rejection of such imports is a growing concern, given the potential economic impacts low-level presence will have on global trade.” (FAQp5)
Analysis and Resources on LLP
LLP is unacceptable and unjustifiable:
- LLP is trade policy at the expense of public health. The goal of LLP is to facilitate the free flow of goods into Canada, without the restriction of safety assessment.
- LLP overthrows public health policy. LLP rejects Canada’s “science-based” regulation of GMOs because LLP assumes that GM foods are safe before evaluating the available data.
- LLP makes safety regulation irrelevant. LLP establishes an exception to the (already highly criticized and woefully inadequate) process whereby government regulators review scientific data to determine human health safety. The introduction of LLP will further undermine our international reputation for food safety as well as the confidence of Canadians in our food system.
- If LLP is introduced, it will be clear that the Canadian Government has no interest in protecting the health and safety of Canadians.
- Case Study: Agriculture Canada to remove Health Canada from safety assessment of some GM foods, by Lucy Sharratt, CBAN in The Harper Record: 2008-2015, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
- Testimony from CBAN to the House of Commons Agriculture Committee, March 7, 2013
- Press Release March 7, 2013: Changes to GM Food Safety Regulation Debated: Proposal for “Low Level Presence” would remove Health Canada from safety evaluation of some GM foods
- CBAN comments on LLP proposal, Agriculture Canada online consultation, January 2013.
- "Low Level Presence Sacrifices Food Safety for Trade Policy: LLP is indefensible from a public health and safety standpoint" Submission to Government Consultations on LLP, from the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, 2011.
- November 29, 2011 - Press Release: Federal Government Proposes to Side-Step Health Canada’s Regulation of Genetically Modified Foods: Trade policy would sacrifice safety, say groups.
- Click here to read the article on LLP "Legalizing Contamination from Unapproved GM Food: Regulation? Who Needs it!" by Lucy Sharratt, CBAN Coordinator, November 2011
- Government report from September 2011 consultations (released December 2012).
Resources on Regulation in Canada
- CBAN's GMO Inquiry report December 2015: Are GM Crops and Foods Well Regulated?
- Overview: Government use of terms: genetic modification and genetic engineering
- Click here to view various letters from government departments relating to regulation of GMOs, referred to in the report "Are GM Crops and Foods Well Regulated?"
- People's Food Policy Calls for GM Phase-Out, June 2011 - Click here for a summary of what the People's Food Policy says on genetic engineering.
- The Royal Society of Canada Expert Panel on the Future of Food Biotechnology released its highly critical report of Canadian regulation “Elements of Precaution: Recommendations for the Regulation of Food Biotechnology in Canada.” 2001. This report was produced on the request of the major departments that regulate GE: Health Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Environment Canada.
- After initially dismissing the RSC Panel recommendations, the government established an "Action Plan" to address them. But our analysis shows that the government only addressed 2 of the 58 recommendations: "Genetically Modified Organisms and precaution: Is the Canadian Government Implementing the Royal Society of Canada's Recommendations?" by Peter Andrée and Lucy Sharratt, October 2004. Click her to read the 7 page Executive Summary or view the entire report (63 pages).
- The Real Board of Directors: The Construction of Biotechnology Policy in Canada 1980-2002 by Devlin Kuyek
GM Regulation Around the World
From "EU animal feed imports and GMO policy" May 2008, Coordination Paysanne Européenne, Friends of the Earth Europe, Greenpeace.
When a company wants to commercialise a GMO in the US, a safety assessment is only required if the company presents evidence that this is needed. Unsurprisingly, no company has chosen to do this up until now. GMO commercialization in the US therefore occurs under a total absence of health and safety procedures and is complete in an average of 15 months.
The US process for authorising GMOs does not meet international requirements under the United Nations’ Codex Alimentarius, which are considered as the standard by the World Trade Organisation’s trade dispute body. Furthermore, the US is not a signatory to the UN’s Biosafety Protocol.
The US Department for Agriculture (USDA), the regulatory agency with primary responsibility for biotech crops, has come in for unusually harsh criticism from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS,2002), its own Inspector General (USDA IG, December 2005), and many farm and public interest groups for failing to adequately assess and regulate biotech crops. Since just 2006, three federal courts have also found USDA’s regulation of GM crops to be grossly deficient and not compliant with U.S. environmental laws. In one case, USDA was found to have violated both the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Acts for allowing several companies to grow GM crops that harbour untested pharmaceuticals in Hawaii without first conducting an environmental assessment.
The EU has a relatively robust regulatory procedure for authorizing GMOs onto the market. This provides the opportunity for a scientific dialogue in an area of risk assessment where there are still major gaps in scientific understanding. Therefore it takes nearly 2.5 years for authorisation in Europe. For details see GMO Compass funded by the EU.
Contrary to the US, Brazil has more strict GMO laws based on the UN’s Biosafety Protocol. It takes 3-5 years to commercialise GMOs in Brazil.
Concerning Argentina, the Commission’s DG Agriculture, has itself acknowledgedi that Argentina has historically been unwilling to authorize GM crops prior to EU approval and that the likely impact of the GM crop on exports is a consideration in the approvals process. It takes an average of 3 years to arrove a new GMO for cultivation in Argentina.
China also has a more precautionary approach to GMOs than the US, and is getting stricter:
- The Chinese Agricultural GM Crop Bio-safety Committee has been reorganized to include members specialized in environmental and biosafety issues.
- Certificates for GM commodities can only be granted for a maximum of five years, and are usually granted for three years or lessii.
- Any GMO imported into China must have proof that it is approved for commercial production in the exporting country.
- Once a company has requested approval to commercialise a GMO the Ministry of Agriculture has up to 270 days to reach a decision.
- China has legislation requiring the return or destruction of food imports that contain unapproved GM materials, incorrectly labelled GM materials or materials labelled as non-GM which are discovered to contain GM material.
- Beijing is considering legislation that would put in place monitoring of GM foods and require importing companies to bear the cost of recalling foods found to contain illegal GM materials.
- Furthermore, Kraft foods, the world’s second largest food supplier, has announced that all foods produced on the Chinese mainland will not contain GM material.
For some further details of regulations governing GM in other countries see the Government of Australia's summary.
People's Food Policy Calls for GM Phase-Out
From “Resetting the Table: A People’s Food Policy for Canada” which is the result of a collaborative process in which hundreds of people devoted thousands of volunteer hours to create a food policy that genuinely reflects the perspectives of people across the country.
- Democratize science and technology policy and integrate the precautionary principle into all stages of decision-making.
- Genetically-Modified Organisms (GMOs) are living pollution that self-replicate. They cannot be recalled or controlled once they have been released and can spread and interbreed with other organisms, thereby contaminating ecosystems and affecting future generations in unforeseeable and uncontrollable ways. Genetically- Modified (GM) crops threaten agro-biodiversity which is fundamental to global food security, as well as threaten the future of organic food and farming through contamination. Existing GM crops should be phased out and there should be no further approvals of GM crops and animals. A just transition process, including financial and technical support, needs to be established to assist farmers to shift back to non-GM seed sources and to adopt ecological agriculture practices.
- The power over seeds, and potentially breeds, represented by monopoly control has become a mechanism for transferring wealth from farmers and rural communities into the hands of corporations and their shareholders. Canada’s patent legislation should be amended to explicitly disallow the patenting of life, including living organisms and genetic sequences.
- Protect and support the open and free sharing of non- transgenic seeds and breeds as a fundamental practice of agriculture.
- Establish a national ban on “terminator” technology and actively support the existing international ban at the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.
Science and Technology for Food and Agriculture
Challenges: Our food system is based on thousands of years of knowledge and innovation by indigenous peoples, farmers, fishers, and cooks. This rich and diverse knowledge is being marginalized as risky technologies facilitate greater concentration, industrialization and industry control in food and farming. Potential threats (often originally introduced as technological fixes for problems caused by previous technologies) range from the more widely-known platforms of synthetic chemicals and genetic engineering to the emerging applications of nanotechnology, synthetic biology, and climate engineering technologies. These are occurring in the context of a global land grab to feed biomass-intensive “green” technologies, and at the expense of food production and ecosystem health. The parallel erosion of biodiversity and community resilience severely undermines people’s capacity to strengthen local food systems, as well as respond to the increasing challenges posed by climate change.
Ways Forward: Decision-making processes regarding science and technology need to be democratized and guided by precaution and common interest if we are to strengthen our ability to feed ourselves, ensure sustainable livelihoods, and protect biodiversity and healthy ecosystems into the future. ‘Science’ should be acknowledged as including all forms of useful knowledge (codified and tacit) coming from diverse forms of learning and practice including indigenous and farmer knowledge and people’s everyday experience of food. By helping to strengthen and expand ecological agriculture, science and technology can play a particularly positive role in facing present and future challenges in food and agriculture.