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Major setback for biotech industry - Canada's RS report, including url for full report

Among much of interest here, it will not be lost on UK readers that the current head of the Scottish Food Standards Agency was until recently a leading member of the Canadian federal regulators criticised for their cosy relationship with the biotech industry :

1. The Royal Society of Canada's full report - url
2.Expert Study Major Setback for Biotech Industry

1. The Royal Society of Canada's Expert Panel on the Future of Biotechnology
Element of Precaution: Recommendations for the Regulation of Food Biotechnology in Canada
Download the Full Report as a pdf (775k)


2. GM Food Report: Ottawa Rapped, Expert Study Considered Major Setback for Biotech Industry
Peter Calamai
Toronto Star
February 5, 2001

Canadians aren't being adequately protected by government from the risks of genetically modified foods and other biotech products, says a highly critical scientific report commissioned by the federal government.

The expert report, formally released here today by the Royal Society of Canada, condemned the basic approach of federal regulation of biotech agricultural products as "scientifically unjustifiable."

The experts say this approach contradicts the government's promise to err on the side of caution in adopting new technologies.

Also under attack in the 264-page report is excessive government secrecy about biotech safety and the cozy relationship between government regulators and the biotech industry.

Federal regulators barred even the Royal Society panel from seeing evidence that safety tests had actually been done on genetically modified foods.

"The public interest in a regulatory system that is science-based is significantly compromised when that openness is negotiated away by regulators in exchange for cordial and supportive relationships with the industries being regulated," says the report.

"The report is definitely a caution. They're saying this is a powerful technology; let's make sure we get it right," commented Doug Powell, a University of Guelph professor [& GM zealot!] who specializes in food safety.

The scientific experts also said the government had no proven way to determine whether genetically modified foods were safe in their entirely, rather than just looking at individual components. They urged a crash research program to fill this gap.

The report will likely be seen as a major victory for activists who have been urging a slowdown on development of new biotech products and a setback for the biotech industry. But anti-biotech groups will be disappointed that the experts stopped short of endorsing mandatory labelling for all genetically modified food products.

But Powell said industry was already ahead of government regulators in responding to some of the specific concerns of the 15 experts assembled by the Royal Society, the country's national academy of science.

Canada is the third-largest producer of genetically modified crops in the world and the federal government has approved more than 40 varieties of corn, potatoes, tomatoes, squash and other plants. Most provide benefits to growers like lower pesticide use rather than any direct improvement for consumers, the report notes.

These plants are genetically engineered by inserting DNA from bacteria, viruses or insects.

The 50-plus recommendations from the scientific experts add up to an overhaul of the current system of regulating biotech products, including:

Independent, outside science auditors to double-check every step of federal regulation.

More openness throughout the process, with companies no longer allowed to hide documents behind claims of commercial confidentiality.

Compulsory registration for all transgenic animals, such as pigs with human genes already being tested in Toronto hospitals for possible transplant use.

A moratorium on the raising of genetically modified fish in pens in lakes and oceans from which they escape to interbreed with wild fish.

A ban on the common practice of using antibiotic resistant genes as markers in transgenic plants because this resistance might be transferred to microbes.

The Royal Society was asked in November, 1999 by the federal government to investigate potential risks to humans, animals and the environment by current and future biotech products.

The society tapped its membership and outsiders to come up with 15 experts covering the scientific, legal and social aspects of biotechnology. Similar Royal Society panels have reported on cell phone safety, the treatment of lab monkeys by the federal health department and other scientific controversies.

In the report, the Royal Society experts emphasize that the government's terms of reference ruled out dealing with such questions as the objection by vegetarians over animal genes inserted into plants and the broader issue of humanity playing God by creating whole new forms of life.

The report also does not deal with the claim by industry and government that benefits from biotechnology outweigh the risks.

But the experts do tackle the failings in their own backyard, bemoaning the co-opting of biotechnology science in universities by commercial interests and the emphasis on secrecy to squeeze dollars out of research by patenting discoveries.

This co-opting, says the report, ``contributes to the general erosion of public confidence in the objectivity and independence of the science behind the regulation of food technology.''

The most potentially damaging part of the report is the assault on the approach that federal regulators have used to approve most biotech crops so far, something called ``substantial equivalence.''

If a transgenic plant appears to be no more different than plants produced by conventional breeding techniques, then federal regulators often approve it without a full risk assessment, say the experts. Federal regulators contended they were more rigorous but the expert panel rejected their claims.

The experts make this analogy. "It looks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, therefore we assume that it must be a duck - or at least we will treat it like a duck."

The experts say this approach is fatally flawed for genetically modified, or GM, crops and exposes Canadians to several potential health risks, including toxicity and allergic reactions.

The decision to exempt plants from a full safety assessment is often based upon unsubstantiated assumptions, the report says.

February 5, 2001 _canada010205

OTTAWA - The Royal Society of Canada is condemning the way the federal government regulates genetically-modified foods, saying consumers aren't being well-protected.

The scientific report talks about government secrecy and the close relationship the government has with biotech industries. "The public interest is...significantly compromised," says the report. The Royal Society is Canada's national academy of science. It gathered 15 experts to compile the report. Canada is the third-largest producer of GM crops and the government has approved more than 40 varieties of corn, tomatoes, potatoes and other plants.

The report came up with 50 recommendations, among them: companies can no longer hide behind commercial confidentiality and must open up their processes an independent auditor to watch every step of federal regulation compulsory regsitration for transgenic animals, such as pigs with human genes a ban on using antibiotic resistant genes in transgenic plants

The report also criticizes what it calls the "co-opting" of biotechnology science in universities by commercial interests. It concludes federal regulators have approved transgenic plants without a full assessment of its risks to consumers.