GE Debate Intensifies in Canada

GE Debate Intensifies in Canada

The Ottawa Citizen 11/27/01

Federal reaction to biofood study creates safety fears, experts say:
Panel, created by government, questions transparency of biotechnology

by Janice Manchee

The federal government's response to an expert panel report it
requested on biofood now has those same experts skeptical about the
future safety and transparency of biotechnology research in Canada.

The action plan was released late last Friday without notice to the
panel. Greenpeace, the Sierra Club of Canada and the Council of
Canadians held a press conference yesterday to blast the federal
response. "At least this time they haven't fallen back on a knee-jerk
rejection," said panel co-chairman Brian Ellis, who said the report
was initially met by resistance from the government. "But I'm still
uneasy about the lack of a reporting mechanism and the lack of
expectations for concrete accomplishments."

Mr. Ellis, a plant biochemist at the University of British Columbia,
adds that no one seems to be accountable for the implementation of the
action plan.

"Who are they going to report to?" he asked. "If it's themselves,
that's not satisfactory."

The 14-member panel was appointed by the Royal Society of Canada, a
peer-selected national body of Canada's top scientists and scholars,
at the government's request. It was asked to look at the future of
biotechnology and to assess the risks and the approaches necessary to
ensure the safety of new foods.

The panel's report, released in February, contained 53 detailed
recommendations ranging from the establishment of a national research
program to monitor the long-term effects of genetically modified
organisms to a moratorium on the rearing of genetically modified fish
in aquatic netpens. The government response includes actions such as
publishing documents in a timely manner, and considering establishment
of panels to advise on regulations related to transgenic fish.

"I don't think they were expecting a critical report, so they said we
went beyond our mandate," Mr. Ellis said of the initial reaction. "But
after some thought, I think they realized we were being constructive."

Mr. Ellis says the panel is not calling for a moratorium on
genetically modified foods, but the members have called for a better
process to assess these foods.

Eric Darier, a campaigner with Greenpeace, called the federal response
a whitewash.

"Instead of fixing a broken regulatory system for food biotechnology
in Canada, Ottawa continues to ignore, lie, deny and delay with
promises of further studies and revamped public relations materials,"
he said.

Elizabeth May, spokeswoman for the Sierra Club of Canada, said
fundamental issues, such as conflict of interest, are not resolved in
the action plan.

"Substantial equivalence" provides an example. Under this concept, she
explained, a potato is a potato if it looks, cooks and mashes like a
potato -- even if it has a new, non-potato gene in it -- and wouldn't
be subjected to safety regulation. According to manufacturers,
however, the seed of that potato would be unique and could be patented
and owned. But Ms. May said manufacturers can't have it both ways. Any
genetically modified food should be tested.

The Royal Society report can be found at and the
government's response at

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