World

Ill-fitting genes?

Activists in Canada campaign against genetic alteration

Susan McClelland October 18 1999
World

Ill-fitting genes?

Activists in Canada campaign against genetic alteration

Susan McClelland October 18 1999

Ill-fitting genes?

World

Activists in Canada campaign against genetic alteration

Susan McClelland

It was fitting that Greenpeace activists would choose the stately confines of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto for a protest against genetically altered food. On the buildings lower level, a historical display highlights the artifacts of the 19th-century Prairie farming setder. On the fourth floor last week, prominent local chef Jamie Kennedy harkened back to those simpler times with an all-organic pre-Thanksgiving meal, complete with chestnuts and apple pie, as scientists, food distributors and some local farmers gathered to denounce the changes wrought in late 20th-century agriculture. The event was part of a newly launched national campaign to battle so-called GMOs—genetically modified organisms—in Canadian food. Greenpeace wants them banned outright, arguing that too little is known about the long-term environmental and health effects of genetic manipulation.

“The public was not involved in deciding whether they wanted this,” said Michael Khoo, the Greenpeace campaign organizer. “And there is just no scientific evidence to say that this is safe.” The aims of modification are normally straightforward: scientists alter a plants genetic structure to improve its quality or to make it resistant to insects, pesticides and herbicides. Many farmers consider it a boon. Up to 70 per cent of canola and 35 per cent of corn grown in Canada has been genetically altered. Health Canada has approved 42 genetically modified foods for consumption, although not all are on the market. But only one product, a heavily altered canola, requires mandatory labelling. “The others are mixed into the market with traditional products,” said Khoo, “so that consumers often don’t know what they are getting.”

Business has already begun to respond to rising public concern. An official at the Loblaw’s supermarket chain told Macleans that some of its popular President’s Choice products may contain GMOs, but the company is still investigating the extent. A Kellogg Canada spokeswoman said genetically modified grains may be used in some of

the firm’s cereals. Both companies say they are working with industry associations that last month began developing standards for voluntary labelling.

Critics, however, say the government must make labelling mandatory. Many opponents also take aim at the close relationship between Ottawa and the industry. The Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy, an ecological watchdog organization, estimates that this year about $200 million in federal subsidies will go to food biotechnology. “It has been policy in Canada since 1982 to support the biotech industry,” says Vancouver writer and ex-farmer Brewster Kneen, author of Farmageddon: Food and the Culture of Biotechnology. “The government and these companies have deliberately pushed this stuff onto the shelves with as little public information as possible.”

Ann Clark, an agricultural scientist at the University of Guelph in Ontario, criticizes Ottawa for accepting data provided by biotech firms in order to approve a GMO, rather than use a system of independent reviews and long-term assessments. But proponents insist that Canada’s regulatory standards are rigorous, and that products that hit the market are safe. “You have to remember,” says Bryan Harvey, co-ordinator of agricultural research at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, “that as long as men have been cultivating plants, we have been using much cruder methods to create new variants. And I have great difficulty understanding an environmental group ignoring that we are producing much friendlier approaches to the control of weeds and insects.”

Gavin Dandy, who owns an organic farm about 85 km northwest of Toronto, brought a grower’s fears to the ROM luncheon. He worries that seedlings from farms raising GMOs may contaminate the four hectares of vegetable seeds he planted on his farm. “These products are not like a car or toy—they can’t be recalled,” says Dandy. “The consequences can’t be known.” Canadian consumers are sure to learn more in coming months as the debate rages. E53