Genetically modified crops in Ohio. Photo via.
Lots of people are worried about eating GMOs, or at least want to know what's in their food. In the absence of mandatory labelling laws, we're putting our faith in Health Canada to make sure that the food we're putting on our plates won't kill us, today or in the future.
But, Agriculture and Agri-food Canada (AAFC)—the part of the government responsible for growing food and trading it with other countries—says it should be okay for Canadians to eat small amounts of GMOs that Health Canada hasn't approved yet.
The logic goes like this: if another country has approved a GMO, and their tests are up to Canada’s standards, then it should be okay to import and eat it in very small amounts.
It’s called the low-level presence (LLP) policy and governments have been talking about it for at least 10 years. But now, the Canadian government wants to be the first to adopt the policy in the hope that other governments will follow our example, and international trade will become less risky and complicated.
Rick Holley, who teaches food safety and food microbiology at the University of Manitoba, says “the safety [of GMOs] for humans has been established,” so an LLP policy shouldn’t have any impacts on our health, as long as there aren't any long-term effects that haven't been found yet.
But, Lucy Sharratt, who coordinates an anti-GMO organization called the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, says there is no scientific consensus on GMOs. More importantly, she says the policy sets a dangerous precedent for taking power away from Health Canada and putting it in the hands of other governments. She also says the government is putting trade before the health and safety of Canadians without any guarantee that the rest of the world will follow its example.
If a food manufacturer wants to sell or advertise a new GM food in Canada today, they have to go through at least seven years of tests and assessments, which Health Canada says “provides assurance that the food is safe when prepared or consumed according to its intended use.”
Rene Van Acker, who researches the spread and containment of GMOs at the University of Guelph told me that because we have a “very large” and “fully integrated” food-supply chain, “once you drop something in the puddle here, it will end up all over the place.”
That makes it easy for small amounts of unapproved GMOs to show up in grain shipments from other countries. When that happens, the shipment is sent back to the host country and farmers take the hit.
AAFC realizes that GM food is becoming ubiquitous and it’s only a matter of time before it becomes an impediment to trade. Their proposal is to take Health Canada out of the equation and allow small amounts of non-approved GMOs to be accepted in grain shipments from other countries (the policy doesn’t apply to fruits, vegetables or GM seeds).
Patrick Girard, an AAFC spokesperson sent me an email statement saying it was “too soon” to know when this might be implemented in Canada. But according to the Manitoba Co-Operator, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said he would like to see an international policy in place before he retires.
The Canadian government wants to adopt this policy now so they have more leverage when they ask other countries to relax their own GMO standards. They are proposing that everyone agree to follow “the Codex,” a set of guidelines developed by a group of 180 countries called the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which was established by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization.
I asked Stephen Yarrow, the vice president of plant biotechnology at Crop Life, which represents the big players in plant technology in Canada, to tell me more about the government’s international strategy. He says Canada is hoping to get the U.S., Brazil, Argentina, “other Latin American countries” and “some of the Asian countries, like Japan, China and South Korea,” on board. The Canadian government is also working on the EU, which has some of the strictest GMO policies in the world. It’s considered a success that the EU even agreed to talk about the idea of implementing an LLP policy in their latest trade agreement with Canada.
Grace Skogstad, the University of Toronto's resident expert on agricultural trade, says Canada exports more grain than it imports, so at its core, this is a trade-driven policy that will make it easier to get Canadian products into other countries.
Lucy Sharratt says the health and safety of Canadians should come before trade considerations. She says that such a policy would not only be a dramatic change to Canada’s GMO policy, but it would “dramatically change” Health Canada’s mandate, which is to protect Canadians from potentially harmful products.
VICE reported in November that Health Canada's priorities should be called into question over their inability to recall lethal drugs, so an LLP policy would only roll back their ability to protect Canadians even further.
Rick Holley, the food-safety teacher from the University of Manitoba, agrees that this is a trade-driven policy that will affect what we eat. But, he wants to remind us that we already rely on other governments to make sure our food is safe. He says, we can’t go to other countries to inspect on a regular basis, so every time we eat imported food, we rely on the “rigour and equivalence” of their food safety standards. He says an LLP policy wouldn’t be “such a far reach from what we’re already doing.”
Regardless of their opinion on this policy, most of the people I spoke to agreed that the government's plan is based on an assumption that we can persuade the rest of the world to follow its lead.
Stephen Yarrow says the government’s approach is “somewhere between a hope and a prayer and being optimistic.” He says it’s important that the Canadian government tries to develop a policy at home so that they can have “clear and honest” conversations with other countries. He says those conversations will be “difficult” but “not impossible.”
Sharratt says the government is asking: “Canadians to accept a lack of regulation for a trade agenda…that is not guaranteed to go anywhere…and that’s a lot to ask.”
Another potential danger of this policy is that it will pave the way for a similar policy for GM seeds. Patrick Girard told me over email that AAFC has already created a “stakeholder working group” to consider a policy that will allow farmers to plant seeds containing traces of non-approved GM seeds. Holley says such a policy would be “really tough to come to grips with” from a scientific perspective because the environmental impacts would be “extremely relevant.”
So, now we have a health agency that doesn't force labels to be put on GM food, that's being accused of not doing its job correctly by a former Health Canada scientist, and now, in the midst of a fairly divided debate about the safety of GM foods, may be abandoning homegrown legislation in favour of a global agreement that might not even catch on.