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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 March, 2004, 15:07 GMT
GM debate fails to ignite Canada
By Lee Carter
in Toronto

There are concerns about cross contamination from GM crops
Opinion polls taken over the past few years in Canada reveal that there is a lot of public concern about genetically modified crops and food.

However, there has been very little done to address those concerns by the government, the food industry, retailers and the country's farmers.

It may also be some of the fire has gone out of the issue here since it first reared its head in the late 1990s.

Around 60% of processed food in Canada contains genetic modifications.

Pressure groups such as The Council Of Canadians and Greenpeace are demanding an independent testing agency to monitor the effects of GM food.

They have always demanded mandatory labelling as well.

According to a 1999 public opinion poll by the Environics group, 80% of Canadians wanted GM foods to be labelled.

But it is possible that in the last couple of years, the issue has been sidelined by concerns such as Canada's BSE crisis and last summer's Sars outbreak.

Mandatory labelling

Certainly the debate has been a lot less dramatic than in Europe. There, consumers seem to have been able to put more pressure on governments and corporations to make changes.

For example, both Nestle and Unilever in Britain have dropped GM ingredients from their products. Their North American counterparts have not.

At least 35 countries have adopted mandatory labelling for GM products.

But similar ideas have made little progress in Canada. Proposed legislation that would have made such labelling compulsory was soundly defeated by the country's parliament in 2001. MPs from the governing Liberals even helped to vote against the bill from one of their own members.

Anti-GM protest in France
In Europe activists have put intense pressure on the authorities
The Canadian health ministry's official position is that GM food is just as safe as conventional food. That finding is hammered home at any opportunity by the country's powerful biotech lobby.

But the group that is even more likely to be listened to by the government is the country's farmers.

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture warns that its industry faces huge losses if mandatory labelling is implemented. The image of the family farm is a powerful and sentimental one for many Canadians, particularly when prairie farmers have suffered alternately from droughts and floods over the past few years.

Unregulated spread

Farmers themselves say it would also be almost impossible to come up with a system of labelling because modified corn and maize grows alongside crops that are not.

Several US studies back up that claim, showing that the seed supply for traditional crops has been widely contaminated with DNA from genetically modified ones.

In fact, the unregulated spread of GM crops is perhaps becoming the most pressing concern of all in Canada's GM debate. Farmers in the agricultural province of Manitoba have bitterly complained that when the wind blows, seeds from canola crops can reach fields up to eight kilometres (five miles) away.

Percy Schmeiser
Schmeiser has come to represent all small farmers battling large corporations
One farmer in Saskatchewan has been in a legal battle for years with the giant agrochemical company Monsanto.

The US-based multinational, well-known as one of the largest producers of GM seed, sued Percy Schmeiser, saying that he had planted and grown Monsanto canola seeds illegally. Mr Schmeiser, who has always maintained that the seeds simply blew on to his land, countersued.

In 2002 the Federal Court of Appeal in Ottawa upheld a ruling that found Mr Schmeiser guilty of illegally planting Monsanto's patented seeds. The plain-speaking Mr Schmeiser, who plans to appeal to Canada's supreme court, has become something of a cause celebre for opponents of GM crops and food; the little guy against the corporate giant.

Consumer faith

But at the end of the day, although Canadians may sympathise with the plight of Mr Schmeiser and definitely want better information about what they are putting in their mouths, there simply has not been the consumer-led revolts that have produced so many changes in Europe.

Food shoppers seem to have more faith in the food they buy here, perhaps because they have not faced the same food scares that have dominated debate in other parts of the world.

Even the current BSE crisis was only caused by one cow and has led to Canadians eating more beef in solidarity with the farmers, not less. Health and organic food, now a large and compulsory staple on supermarket shelves in countries such as Britain, tends to be a growing, but minority market in Canada.

In 2000, the country's largest supermarket chain Loblaw's briefly flirted with the idea of introducing a line of GM-free products. Eventually its management decided that it would be too expensive. However, the chain has not ruled out doing so in the future.

But with each passing year a little more momentum seems to be going out of the idea and the GM debate in Canada.

GM crops 'low risk' for humans
21 Jul 03  |  Science/Nature
'Little economic benefit' from GM
11 Jul 03  |  Politics


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