Canada ready to unveil plan to ease trade of genetically modified foods
By Sarah Schmidt, Postmedia News August 17, 2012
OTTAWA — Canada is set to unveil to the world its proposal to permit traces of unapproved genetically modified organisms in imported foods, even as government officials admit they don’t trust all countries “equally” when it comes to how they approve use of the organisms.
The federal government’s draft plan for managing the low-level presence of GMOs in food and feed products, to be submitted to the World Trade Organization in September, will undergo more consultations in Canada.
The government’s initial proposal was to permit the presence of GMOs in food up to a maximum level of 0.1 per cent of any batch or lot tested – what it refers to as a “redefinition of zero” because it believes avoiding trace levels of GMOs altogether will become impossible over time.
Feedback from industry, organic producers and food experts during a first round of consultations raised many questions, internal records obtained by Postmedia News using access to information show.
The records also reveal concerns of government officials about how other countries manage their regulatory oversight of GMO crops.
In GMO crops, the genetic material (DNA) of plant species has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally, usually involving transferring selected individual genes from one organism into another or between non-related species. Herbicide-tolerant plants contain genetic material from common soil bacteria, for example, while insect-resistant plants contain genetic material from a bacterium that attacks certain insects.
The biotechnology industry says these common traits of GM crops mean they generally have higher yields. Opponents, wary of even trace amounts in foods, raise health and environmental concerns they feel warrant mandatory food-labelling rules to let consumers know of the presence of GMOs. Without studies tracking the long-term health effects, they worry GMOs may include exposure to allergens, or lead to antibiotic resistance and endocrine disruption.
When a genetically modified crop is authorized for use in a country, trace amounts can contaminate other varieties or crops that were not meant to be genetically engineered during cultivation, harvest, transportation or processing. The explosion of GMO-approved crops around the world, estimated by the European Commission Joint Research Council to jump from about 30 in 2009 to more than 100 by 2015, means the accidental low-level presence of GMOs in imported crops is emerging as a major international trade issue.
Canada has been pressing for a consistent global approach to manage the unintended presence, at low levels, of GM crops that are authorized for commercialization in the exporting country but not in the importing one. That’s because Canadian exporters could see their trade disrupted due to trace amounts of Canadian-authorized GM crops found in our exports to countries where they are not approved.
GM crops approved in Canada include: canola, corn, soybean and sugar beet.
The issue became a priority for the federal government in 2009, when the European Union temporarily barred Canadian flax imports after tests showed they were contaminated with GM flax.
Canada’s position remains a tough sell in parts of Europe. Germany affirmed in June that it will oppose any push by the European Union to allow traces of unapproved GMOs in food; the EU adopted new rules last year to allow traces of unapproved GMOs in animal feed imports.
Canada’s draft policy, spearheaded by Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, will exclude seeds from the plan altogether, meaning trace amounts will not be permitted in any imported seeds for planting in Canada. The decision comes after organic producers complained during the first round of consultations that cross-contamination undermined the integrity of their crops.
But Blair Coomber, a director general at Agriculture Canada, wouldn’t say if the government will be proposing a change to the “action level” of 0.1 percent set for imported food and other agricultural commodities, below which enforcements action would not be taken.
“I don’t know what the number will be. We put 0.1 per cent as a starting point,” Coomber said in an interview. “We’re still in process of working it out, but it will have a number and seeds won’t apply.”
An internal summary of the discussion at Agriculture Canada’s Grains Roundtable meeting last November shows the grain industry has been pushing for a threshold above the proposed 0.1 per cent.
In addition to needing “policies that are workable for exporters,” the grain industry “is concerned with the action level,” according to general observations.
Specific questions and comments from the grain industry included: “would have trouble meeting the 0.1 per cent”; “At 0.1 per cent, why are we looking at such a low level when we need to be looking for areas that could be applicable in the working level?”; and “Why have we chosen the 0.1 per cent? Is it supposed to be science-based? Why are we so adamant on endorsing something that is too restrictive? It is important to set the right bar not the lowest bar.”
In a separate consultation last October with members of Health Canada’s Food Expert Advisory Committee, officials from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Agriculture Canada said “there is a political interest in having a number,” according to the internal summary.
The officials were also pressed about the trustworthiness of approvals processes, citing India and China as two countries grappling with their own GMO policies.
“Not all countries are trusted equally, the presenters said, and it is difficult to trust countries that don’t have transparency. CFIA is in an active dialogue with China to build the understanding of respective regulatory systems,” the summary states.
In an interview, Coomber said if Canada has concerns about any country’s approvals process related to food, feed and environmental safety, the new plan would not kick in. Instead, Canada would use its current process, under which any presence of an unauthorized GMOs is considered to be in violation of Canadian regulations.
This process triggers an investigation of the risk to the food and feed supply, and the environment. Based on this assessment, the government determines how best way to bring the imported product in line with Canadian rules.
That could mean removing the product from the Canadian marketplace altogether or requiring developers to have their GM product approved in Canada.
“They would have to have gone through a safety assessment that we have confidence in before any (new policy) kicks in. If they haven’t done that, they we go right back to where we are today,” said Coomber.
In an interview, Matthew Holmes, executive director of the Canada Organic Trade Association, said the interest of Canadian exporting companies appears to be driving the file.
“The history of the GMO approval system has always been: ‘This is science based, this isn’t an economic consideration, this isn’t about market access consideration.’ But what we’re seeing now is an attempt to allow unapproved GMOs into Canada that haven’t been reviewed by Canadian authorities and using the market access argument for that and without providing any information or any detailed scientific information about why or how this level has been established.”
Holmes added that while he’s pleased to see seeds excluded from the new draft policy, organic producers would still be vulnerable.
“It’s an improvement . . . but our concern is most of these things can come in and still propagate,” he said, pointing out most feed blends contain seeds.