May 25, 2013
Bill C-474: Concrete change to challenge Monsanto’s GM crops
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This article was originally published in Peace and Environment News, Ottawa, September/October 2010. By Lucy Sharratt, Coordinator, Canadian Biotechnology Action Network
Monsanto is facing a new reality check. Soon after the House of Commons reconvenes this September, your Member of Parliament will vote on Bill C-474. If passed, the Bill would require the government to assess export market harm before any new genetically modified (GM) crop is approved. The fight over Bill C-474 is happening at the same time that the struggle to stop GM alfalfa in North America is reaching a critical stage. The fate of the Bill and GM alfalfa are tied together and Monsanto is fighting back. Canada could be on the cusp of its first major change in GM crop regulation. This change would protect farmers from predictable economic chaos caused by GM crops and the debate is forcing Monsanto to defend its practice of introducing GM crops that have no, or negative, market value.
Bill C-474 gives us a critical opportunity to stop dangerous GM crops because, if passed, it will stop products like GM wheat and GM alfalfa that are not accepted in our export markets. Introduced by Alex Atamanenko, NDP Agriculture Critic and MP for BC Southern Interior, the Bill is the first Private Members Bill on genetic engineering to get this far in the Parliamentary process. House of Commons Agriculture Committee hearings on the Bill will continue this September and October with a final vote in October or November. The Bill actually has a chance of passing – which is why the biotechnology industry is lobbying really hard to stop it.
GM Crops Cause Economic Chaos
The reality is that GM crops, like GM alfalfa or GM wheat, can destroy markets for Canadian farmers. Farmers are at risk when GM crops are commercialized in Canada without also being approved in our major export markets. This is especially true because contamination is inevitable: GM seeds are living pollution that cannot be controlled or recalled. It is this undeniable reality of contamination and the crisis of GM flax that has catapulted Bill C-474 forward
Late last year, Canadian farmers faced a major GM contamination crisis when GM flax was found in Canadian exports and closed our flax export markets. GM flax was never approved outside of Canada and the U.S. and has been illegal to sell as seed in Canada since 2001. Nevertheless, in early September 2009, European bakery and cereal companies began discovering GM flax from Canada. Companies pulled their products off the grocery store shelves and stopped buying Canadian flax. By the end of October, contamination had reached 35 countries, none of which had approved GM flax for human consumption.
The crisis in flax shows us exactly what is wrong with our regulatory system that approves GM crops regardless of the harm they will cause to our markets. GM crops are only assessed (inadequately) for human safety and environmental safety. The impact of GM crops on farmers, our economy or society is not considered.
GM Flax Contamination Crisis
Canada is the world’s leading flax producer and exporter and flax is one of Canada’s five major cash-crops, alongside wheat, barley, oats and canola. So the closure of our international markets due to GM contamination was no small matter. Our flax export markets are damaged and Canadian farmers still face low prices and market uncertainty. Farmers are also still paying to test their crops for GM contamination. These costs to farmers are an unnecessary and preventable burden.
GM contamination of Canadian flax came out of the blue because farmers had successfully fought to get GM flax removed from the market. GM flax was approved by the Canadian government in 1996 (for safe eating) and 1998 (for environmental release) but in 2001 farmers convinced the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to remove variety registration for the GM flax, making it illegal to sell the seeds. Flax growers took this measure to protect their European market, which buys 60-70 percent of our flax but which also rejects GM. Despite farmer action, 10 years later contamination was found, causing the very problem that flax farmers predicted. Bill C-474 is an attempt to make sure this type of crisis does not happen again. The issue is urgent because Canadian alfalfa growers are at immediate risk from the possible introduction of GM alfalfa.
GM alfalfa: The Next Crisis?
Alfalfa growers do not need or want GM alfalfa and have been trying to stop it for years. The introduction of Monsanto’s GM herbicide tolerant (Roundup Ready) alfalfa would have serious negative impacts on many different types of farmers, both conventional and organic. Alfalfa is a forage crop meaning that its’ used as pasture (and livestock feed) for animals like dairy cows, beef cattle, lambs, pigs and even honeybees. Its’ also used in horse breeding. Farmers call alfalfa the “Queen of Forages” because its such high quality feed and has so many other unique qualities. For example, alfalfa is used to build up nutrients in the soil, making it particularly important for organic farming. While alfalfa is primarily cut for hay, it is also produced for seed and for dehydrated alfalfa products such as pellets and cubes that we export as livestock feed to places like Japan. If it were introduced, GM alfalfa would ruin export markets for alfalfa producers and turn organic farming in the North America upside down.
GM alfalfa has already been approved in Canada but is not yet allowed on the market because, like flax, alfalfa requires the extra step (easily granted) of variety registration before it can be commercially sold as seed in Canada. In the U.S., GM alfalfa is also still illegal, despite a challenge from Monsanto at the U.S. Supreme Court this summer. The situation in the U.S. could change when the U.S. Department of Agriculture releases its final study on the impacts on farmers and the environment. The outcome of this study will decide if GM alfalfa will be grown in the U.S..
If GM alfalfa is planted in the U.S., contamination of Canadian alfalfa will follow. The opportunities for alfalfa to contaminate are limitless because it is an insect-pollinated crop, which means that insects collect pollen and distribute it to other individual plants. Alfalfa is also a perennial with viable seeds that can lie dormant for years.
In June, Jim Lintott, Chairman of the Manitoba Forage Council, told the Parliamentary Agriculture Committee that, “Forage producers support Bill C-474 because we believe it would have the ability to protect the alfalfa industry from the truly dangerous effects of introducing GMO varieties that are not approved by our customers,”. “Bill C-474 is the first step in offering some protection in the future for Canadian family farms. Market acceptance must be made part of the evaluation process and incorporated into the Seeds Regulation Act”, said Kelvin Einarson, Director and Secretary Treasurer of the Manitoba Forage Seed Association Inc. The hearings will continue this fall when we will hear the biotech industry decry the Bill as a threat to innovation. The stage is set for the first real democratic debate over GM.
Force Open the Market
The biotech industry and the Conservative government argue that the solution is to convince Europe to accept GM contamination – what they call “low level presence.” Europe has a “zero-tolerance” for GM contamination in food but if European regulators have not approved certain GM foods for human consumption, how can governments accept a level of contamination, even a small amount? Yet this is what the Canadian government is asking. As Kelvin Einarson of Manitoba Forage Seed Association Inc. says, “We've all heard the comment that countries that currently have a zero tolerance policy to GMO seed need to change the policy and allow certain contamination at low levels, but what gives Canadian agriculture the right to dictate to countries what policies they should agree to?” Furthermore, this policy leaves farmers unprotected from the current market reality.
If Bill C-474 dies, it will be because the Liberal Party did not take a stand. Both the New Democratic Party and the Bloc Quebecois are strong supporters of the Bill but, despite counting on a rural constituent base, the Conservative Party is pro-GM and strongly opposes the Bill. Though Liberal Agriculture Critic Wayne Easter recognizes there is a problem and has already dismissed industry threats over the Bill, he is not supporting the Bill. Liberal Party Leader Michael Ignatieff was missing from the House of Commons when the Bill passed its second vote and Ignatieff has not responded to a petition signed by 600 people in his constituency. Faced with intensive lobbying from the biotech industry this fall, it will take strong citizen action to get the Bill passed.
The Canadian government has already sacrificed organic canola for the sake of the GM project. If Bill C-474 is defeated, farmers who grow alfalfa or wheat could also be sacrificed.