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OP/ED:Genetically engineered seeds creating barriers to exports for Canadian Farmers

Canada’s flax industry is scrambling to repair damage to our export markets because of contamination by unapproved genetically engineered (GE) flax. This problem will reoccur as more genetically engineered crops are approved without rules that consider existing regulations in export markets and the potential negative impacts on trade, says New Democrat Agriculture Critic Alex Atamanenko (BC Southern-Interior).

Atamanenko’ Bill C-474 seeks to fill the regulatory gap which led to the rejection of Canadian flax shipments to Europe after widespread contamination by genetically engineered (GE) “Triffid” flax unapproved in our export markets. It calls for an analysis of potential harm to export markets to be conducted before the sale of any new genetically engineered seeds is permitted. Presently, Canadian approvals of new GE seeds are based on environmental and health assessments, but ignore the question of any potential harm to export markets.

Maureen Bostock from the National Farmers Union agrees, saying that C-474 is essential to protecting farmers from the release of GE seeds not regulated in export markets. “The recent damage to our flax export markets from GE contamination clearly illustrates the degree of risk,” said Bostock. “The government has an obligation to protect farmers from the interruption of markets and, by so doing, protect the economic interests of all Canadians.”

“This Bill would fill a gaping hole in Canada’s regulations. The government risks economic harm to farmers by permitting GE seeds that are not approved in our export markets,” said Lucy Sharratt, Coordinator for the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN), “Bill C-474 is immediately needed to address the foreseeable economic threat posed by GE alfalfa, for example.”

Monsanto has already been given the necessary approvals for GE alfalfa, with only variety registration left to go before it can be legally sold. “If GE alfalfa is commercialized, it will only be a matter of time before GE contamination spreads to non-GE alfalfa and we begin to see serious economic consequences to Canadian farmers who grow for domestic and international markets,” said Deputy Agriculture Critic Malcolm Allen.

Bill C-474 debate started on Mar. 17 and continued in it's second hour of debate on Apr. 1. It will likely come to a vote sometime this spring. 

BACKGROUND


1)     The following was obtained from the CFIA and is offered in order to correct misunderstandings about the current flax contamination crisis and the timeline of the origins of this crisis:

FACT:

·        1996 GE flax “CDC Triffid” received approval for environmental release and for use as animal feed 

·        1996 CDC Triffid was granted variety registration making it legal to sell as seed for animal feed or industrial purposes

·        1998 CDC Triffid received food safety authorization from Health Canada making it legal to produce and sell for human consumption

·        2001 Variety registration for CDC Triffid was removed, making it illegal to sell the seed

Flax farmers pressured the University of Saskatchewan to ask the CFIA to remove variety registration for CDC Triffid due to fear of losing their export markets, Europe in particular.

Clearly if a mechanism to consider market harm in the approval process had been in place at the time that the CDC Triffid was submitted for approval, the GE flax would not have been made legal to sell and the current contamination crisis that has resulted in the closure of our flax export markets would have been avoided.

2) “To keep markets open to all commodities, it’s critical that our system remain based firmly in science.” Ag Minister, Gerry Ritz – Thursday, March 18, in written statement.

FACT:  Our trading partners will only open their markets to GE crops that they have approved for safety and so this is not a valid argument. 

Canadian officials responsible for allowing this technology onto the market need a mandate to consider the impact it will have on those export markets, especially when the regulations are not harmonized with our trading partners and even more especially with GE wheat and GE alfalfa looming on the horizon.

Two varieties of GE Alfalfa have already passed unhindered through our environment and health approvals and only have to be registered as varieties to make them legal to sell as seed.  If this is allowed the problems are foreseeable but with the mandate proposed by Bill C-474 they would be preventable.

3) “This Bill will clearly restrict technology and science. New technology holds the key to future prosperity.” Conservative response letter to email campaign supporting C-474.

 FACT:  Argentina, the third largest exporter of GE crops in the world (Canada’s is fifth), requires an analysis of potential harm to their export markets, along with environment and health assessments, as a consideration accompanying their approval process.  Their industry is thriving.

4) “Had it been in place previously there would be no canola industry in Canada – the $12.2 billion dollars that is generated annually in Western Canada would be lost. David Anderson, MP, letter response to email campaign supporting C-474.

FACT:  The canola industry was well on its way to success as a result of varietal improvements from traditional breeding methods well before GE traits were introduced.  Even today the genetic quality of canola is derived from traditional breeding (in particular hybrids) with some conventional varieties now containing a herbicide-tolerant gene. 

 In a January 18, 2010 edition of Forbes magazine, Monsanto CEO, Hugh Grant admits that genetic engineering cannot replace conventional breeding methods, which allow crop scientists to create hundreds of seed varieties tailored to different soils and weather.  “If you have incredibly brilliant biotech and extraordinarily average seed, you will end up with average crop yields,” said Grant. “The thing the (genetic engineering) does is protect that pre-programmed yield,” said Grant