Free Trade Forcing Frankenfoods
Down Canadian Throats

Montreal Gazette
March 15, 2002

Hard to swallow: Ottawa using trade deal as an excuse for not labeling GM


Canadians owe a debt of gratitude to Peter Phillips. He's the co-chairman of
the Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee, which is trying to come up
with a standard for the labeling of genetically modified foods for the
federal government. In a submission to the Commons health committee on
Tuesday, Phillips explained as clearly as possible why democracy in this
country is on its death bed.

Any attempt to implement mandatory labeling of GM foods, he said, would
likely violate trade agreements with the United States. "It would
undoubtedly complicate our relations with our major trading partner, the
United States, and complicate the access of our market into their market and
vice- versa," Phillips told the committee. Phillips appeared to be saying
Canadians have lost the right to know what they are consuming - perhaps even
to protect their own health - to corporate power and profits.

That's not likely the conclusion Phillips wanted people to draw. He is,
after all, very much in favour of pushing biotechnology on an unwilling
public. As taxpayers, we even pay him to do so in his role as the federally
financed Chair in Managing Knowledge-based Agri-food Development at the
University of Saskatchewan. Phillips' research program concentrates on
issues related to intellectual property rights (i.e., privatizing the
genetic code in foodstuffs), market access and consumer acceptance of
agricultural biotechnology products.

Despite the tens of millions of hidden taxpayer dollars thrown into the PR
battle on behalf of the biotechnology industry, however, the consumer
acceptance battle has largely been lost. Surveys of public attitudes toward
GM foods consistently show near-unanimity in Canada and elsewhere for
mandatory labeling. But the agri-food and grocery-retailing industries
already know any label would send consumers scurrying.

That's why the advisory committee Phillips co-chairs wants a voluntary
labeling regime, as it expressed in an interim report issued last summer.
That in itself isn't surprising since Ottawa, in violation of its own
guidelines, heavily stacked the committee in favour of biotech stakeholders
with a vested self-interest in the issue.

The Canadian General Standards Board policy on balanced representation says,
in the context of a standards committee such as the CBAC, "no single
category of interest representation can dominate the voting procedures of
the committee." But the advisory committee is overwhelmingly dominated by
biotech industry representatives, their third-party front groups, university
biotechnology researchers and government officials whose mandate is to force
GM foods onto grocery shelves in Canada and abroad.

Despite this, the committee appears stuck. Its work should have wrapped up
by now, but it hasn't yet found a way to successfully spin the labeling
issue without raising major public-opinion alarm bells across the country.
Thus, Phillips's new argument NAFTA or the WTO would lead to heavy trade
sanctions from the U.S.

It's obviously a fall-back position, a Plan B-style big stick to batter
Canadians into submission. It also clearly defines the clear and present
danger these trade agreements represent not only for our simple right to
know, but for the health of our bodies, environment and democracy.
The big stick is consistent with other blows NAFTA has inflicted on
Canadians in the past. Ethyl Corporation's successful NAFTA challenge
against the ban on the dangerous gasoline additive MMT four years ago
appears to have opened the floodgates to a series of suits designed to
overturn almost any environmental or health regulation.

That prospect doesn't appear to overly trouble the Liberal braintrust in
Ottawa. But politically, the federal government cannot be seen to be
willy-nilly surrendering the right to create or preserve healthy communities
to corporate greed. And this is where NAFTA works its insidious magic. By
leaving the dirty work to teams of corporate lawyers and secretive,
unaccountable trade tribunals, Ottawa (or Washington, for that matter) can
say, "We have no choice. Our hands are tied."

It's a willing captivity, of course. By stalling for years, the government
has allowed GM foods to invade our supermarkets, and for the genetic
contamination of our environment, leading to the increasing impossibility of
growing organic, GM-free crops. If the essence of democracy is informed
choice, Canadians are being deprived of both the information they need and
their right to choose.
- Lyle Stewart is a Montreal writer. His E-mail is

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