Bill C-474 could decide the future of GM crops

by Lucy Sharratt, coordinator,  Canadian Biotechnology Action Network

Canadians and Canadian farmers won a major victory recently against the biotech industry. While this victory is just the first step in a major and prolonged fight, it is indicative of the unavoidable conclusion that genetically modified (GM) crops are causing harm to farmers and farming in Canada.

Despite major industry lobbying, Members of Parliament listened to Canadians ahead of the biotech industry in April when they passed Bill C-474 through a second reading and into the hands of the House of Commons Agriculture Committee for study. Bill C-474 would support Canadian farmers by requiring “an analysis of potential harm to export markets be conducted before the sale of any new genetically engineered seed is permitted.” For the first time, Parliament could take steps to protect farmers from the negative impacts of GM crops.

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, which 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. Bill C-474 will likely be scheduled for a debate this month in the Agriculture Committee and we can expect the biotech industry to do everything they can to stop it.

This Bill was propelled forward by the current flax contamination crisis. In September 2009, European bakery companies began discovering GM flax from Canada and pulled products off the grocery store shelves. By the end of October, contamination had reached 35 countries, none of which had approved the GM flax for growing or safe eating. Flax contamination closed our export markets and drove flax prices down. Our markets are damaged and Canadian farmers still face market uncertainty while paying for testing and clean-up. These costs are an unnecessary and preventable burden that flax farmers actually took steps to prevent 10 years ago. The flax crisis is the type of crisis that Bill C-474 would prevent.

GM contamination of Canadian flax was completely unexpected because GM flax was actually removed from the market in 2001, at the behest of flax farmers, in order to prevent this exact scenario. GM flax was approved by the Canadian government in 1996 and 1998, but flax farmers convinced the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to remove variety registration in 2001, 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 exports, but which clearly rejects GM. 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 economic damage is no small matter.

The GM flax was engineered to be tolerant to herbicide residues in soil and was developed by controversial scientist and industry proponent Alan McHughen while working at the University of Saskatchewan. McHughen called the GM flax “Triffid,” in reference to John Wyndham’s 1951 horror novel, The Day of the Triffids, which features terrifying, flesh-eating plants farmed for oil. The flax was developed with public money through provincial government funding to the university and is just one example of the many dangerous GM research projects still underway in universities across Canada.

The question that remains is what will our government do to help flax farmers through this crisis and, furthermore, how will it make sure this doesn’t happen again to other farmers? For example, Canadian alfalfa growers are at immediate risk from the possible introduction of GM alfalfa this year and our wheat farmers are under constant threat from Monsanto’s re-launched GM wheat research.

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. GE seeds are living pollution that cannot be controlled or recalled. This contamination, however, serves the biotech industry, which benefits if international markets are forced open to GM via contamination.

This is one reason why biotechnology corporations like Monsanto are bent on introducing new GM crops that are not wanted or needed, but which will contaminate other crops and thereby force GM across the world. Last year, Monsanto launched new GM wheat research despite the fact that, in 2004, widespread protest forced the company to withdraw its applications for approval in Canada and the US. This year, GM alfalfa could be planted in the US and also be legalized in Canada. GM alfalfa is a significant threat to organic food and farming in North America and yet our government could allow this inevitable contamination to happen.

Through the debate over Bill C-474, our MPs are being forced to confront Monsanto. This month, the biotech industry will pressure members of the Agriculture Committee to tear apart this Bill, but the first step in protecting farmers from the economic chaos caused by GM seeds has just been won.

We have a unique opportunity to make concrete change this year and to turn the tide in favour of farmers instead of Monsanto.

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