by Aube Giroux
The deadline for responses to the Health Canada public consultation on its proposal to exempt new GMOs from regulation is midnight tomorrow (24 May). Please act now: https://cban.ca/take-action/no-exemptions/
Aube Giroux is a Nova Scotian documentary filmmaker and PBS cooking show producer. Her film on GMOs, Modified, has been broadcast nationally on CBC, screened at over 70 international film festivals, and received 15 awards. It can be viewed at www.modifiedthefilm.com. Aube is offering GMWatch readers 50% off the rental of the film. The promo code is GMWATCH50 – go to http://modifiedthefilm.com (click "rent" on the main page, then the code is applied at checkout), or the direct link for the discount is accessible here: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/modified/ Discount code valid until 31 July 2021.
Four years ago this spring, I was eagerly awaiting a phone call from Health Canada in response to my interview request. The interview was going to be the final piece of a puzzle I had been working on for 10 years: an investigative documentary film about genetically engineered foods (also called genetically modified organisms or GMOs) and how they are regulated in Canada. As the primary agency responsible for regulating GMOs, Health Canada could provide answers that no one else could. But Health Canada refused to participate in the interview.
My documentary follows an investigation that was started in 1999 when, just a few years after the first GMOs entered our food supply, the Canadian government asked the Royal Society of Canada to perform an assessment of our GMO regulatory system. The result was a very critical 245-page report, released in 2001 and described by the Toronto Star as “a polite but scathing indictment” of the federal government. The report made 53 recommendations to address the alarming lack of transparency and scientific rigour in our GMO regulatory system. But the recommendations were largely ignored by the Canadian government.
This year marks the 20th anniversary since that report. It is therefore ironic that Health Canada chose 2021 to further weaken an already faulty regulatory system by proposing changes to how it will conduct GMO risk assessment.
Sadly, these are not the changes recommended by the Royal Society. These are changes pushed for by multinational biotechnology and pesticide corporations, and their lobby group CropLife Canada, to reduce regulatory hurdles and make it easier to get new GMOs to market quickly, and quietly. In these proposed new guidelines, some GMOs — particularly those created with gene editing — will be exempt from government safety assessment.
Gene editing is a new way to alter the genetic material of plants, animals and other organisms by inserting, deleting or otherwise changing a DNA sequence at a specific site in the genome. It differs from other genetic engineering techniques because it is faster and cheaper and doesn’t always leave behind DNA from a foreign organism in the final product.
However, it still carries risks and is known to result in unexpected effects. Peer-reviewed studies show that gene editing can create genetic errors in the target organism, leading to unexpected outcomes. For example, one tiny genetic change in a DNA sequence can lead to changes in protein composition and affect an organism’s ability to express or suppress other genes.
The possible risks of any new GMO need to be carefully assessed through a robust regulatory system, not by the product developers themselves. By abdicating its responsibility to ensure food safety, Health Canada would set a precedent of corporate self-regulation for GMOs. This is bad for food safety and bad for democracy. It would be further evidence of regulatory capture by industry, whereby corporate goals such as creating “an efficient pathway to commercialization” are given priority over protecting the public. Independent science, not corporate science, needs to be behind all safety assessments.
Initial drafts of the new regulatory guidelines from July 2020 show that Health Canada had originally decided that gene-edited foods would undergo the same risk assessment as other GMOs. However, after several meetings with the agribusiness industry, Health Canada revised its proposed guidelines to remove this regulatory oversight, instead allowing GMOs with no foreign DNA to easily avoid regulation. In other words, these new GMOs would come on the market without any government safety assessment, or the government even knowing they exist. Farmers would unknowingly plant them and consumers would unknowingly eat them. It’s a victory for the industry stakeholders who took part in those meetings, but do we really want to allow companies to call the shots on how our food is regulated?
While touring with my film, audiences frequently expressed shock that Health Canada refused to answer my questions. As Canadian consumers, we experience that same lack of transparency at the grocery store. Canada is now the only industrialized country that doesn’t have a mandatory GMO labelling law, despite the fact that more than 80 per cent of Canadians are in favour of GMO labelling. When it comes to food and agriculture policies in Canada, the agribusiness industry usually gets the last say. The late Member of Parliament Charles Caccia described it perfectly: “Governments are coming under increased well-organized pressure from the corporate sector. Governments have to make a choice between serving the corporate sector and serving the public.”
This article first appeared on Saltwire, May 18, 2021