Feds abandon safety assessments of gene-edited

May 22 is the International Day for Biological Diversity, also known as World Biodiversity Day. In a previous column I included information on Seeds of Diversity, a Canadian non-profit working with volunteers in an attempt to save heritage and other seed. The challenges are huge, and the efforts are stoic…and it is seed by seed by seed.

In May, the federal government also approved practices that allow seeds to be  genetically edited without federal government oversight, assessment, or regulation.

Essentially the decision means that farmers won’t be able to trace if seed is gene edited or not.

In early May the Federal Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, the Hon. Marie-Claude Bibeau, approved the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s (CFIA) guidance or recommendations on gene-edited seed, essentially deciding not to regulate these seeds, and also not to let consumers know when seeds have been gene-edited. More specifically, those genetically modified seeds — known as “Plants with Novel Traits” (PNTs) — that do not introduce foreign DNA will no longer be regulated by the CFIA. Prior to this change, all of these seeds were regulated under the CFIA’s Seed Regulation. Now, instead, biotech companies and product developers modifying and selling these seeds will be allowed to ‘voluntarily’ disclose information, but will not be obligated to do so. It also means, of course, that the CFIA will not have access to this information or data either — unless these corporations decided they should.

The Minister’s decision was announced on May 3 and since then opposition has  been growing with organizations calling on Members of Parliament to voice their deep concern. There is also a demonstration planned outside of MPs offices in several cities across Quebec on May 26.

Call it lack of judgment on the part of the Minister, call it ignorance or stupidity, call it bowing to corporate lobbying, call it vested interest and risking consumer health and the safety of food in the name of profit and the encouragement of so-called industry development,… I could go on… but anyway you cut it or call it, this move on the part of the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food and the federal government is a huge, huge, mistake.

But at times it becomes clear whose interests inspire such reckless decisions. This is one such occasion.

In October of 2022, 14 organizations across Canada (Council of Canadians, Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario, Environmental Defence, FarmFolk CityFolk, Friends of the Earth Canada, Greenpeace Canada, the UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers Union, among others) sent a letter to the Federal Agriculture Minister following a report by Radio-Canada that alleged the President of the CFIA compromised the agency’s independence in the face of corporate lobbying.

The letter notes that the CFIA was unduly influenced by corporate lobbyist CropLife,  by taking that multinational biotech company’s recommendations on deregulation of Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) seed and incorporating these directly into CFIA summary recommendations. In January of 2023, the President of the CFIA resigned (or retired suddenly) her position, but those same summary recommendations have now been approved by the Federal Minister, Marie-Claude Bibeau.

Sadder yet — and just as risky — is that this announcement follows an action by the federal government in May of 2022, to abandon safety assessment of new gene-edited foods.

So now both new gene-edited foods and new gene-edited seeds are no longer being assessed or monitored by Health Canada or the CFIA. There will be no independent review of these food or seed products. We will need to trust the corporate world to let us know how things are going! When seed or food is manipulated through gene editing will no longer be traceable!

Neither farmers or consumers or buyers of Canadian seeds and food products on the international markets will have the ability to know for certain if genetically modified seed has been introduced into a crop. Essentially, the biotech industry will be able to regulate itself, and ‘voluntarily’ provide this information if it so chooses.

The ramifications for organic producers are huge since, according to these now approved recommendations, farmers will have no way of knowing if genetically modified seed has been introduced into their crops — unless of course, the fox guarding the chicken coop decides to let them in on it.

Organic farmers need to certify that their products are free of GMOs. All genetic engineering, including gene editing, for organic food and in organic farming is prohibited by the Canadian Organic Standards. Saskatchewan farmers through Sask Organics have been vocal about the impact of this change.

“This decision runs directly counter to the minister’s commitment to find a solution that ensures organic farmers can continue to farm organically,” said Garry Johnson, President of the farmer-led organization SaskOrganics. “Not ensuring full disclosure of all GM seeds through a mandatory public registry, will make it challenging for organic farmers to meet the requirements of the Canadian Organic Standards.”

And if farmers cannot farm organically, well then we will not be eating organic either.

A rabble article published in 2021 explained in detail the concerns regarding gene editing and, in this case, the removal of regulations for gene-edited foods. The campaign has been ongoing over the last few years to push for more oversight with more than 105 organizations and countless individuals, supporting the call for more regulation and transparency, not less, and warning governments of the ramifications related to removing government assessments and independent monitoring. Among the organizations listed are farm and ecological organizations, but also the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, the Canadian Labour Congress, the Council of Canadians, Équiterre, and the Indigenous Environmental Network, to name but a few.

Now the campaign has moved toward calling for the reversal of the federal Agriculture Minister’s approval of the CFIA guidance related to “Plants with Novel Traits” (PNTs) aka genetically modified seeds that do not introduce foreign DNA. It’s hoped that continued pressure calling for mandatory, independent safety assessments and mandatory reporting to government for all genetically engineered seeds and crops will force this decision to be reversed by Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Bibeau.

Several organizations, including the Canadian Organic Growers. the National Farmers Union (NFU), and CBAN-the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, a coalition of farm, ecological and civic organizations, are calling for a reversal of this decision noting that this change is the most serious development in the short history of GMOs and that Canada is in the middle of a global fight over the future of our food. This NFU policy and backgrounder on gene-edited seed provides additional detail.

The language may seem alarming and so it should. Organic farmers, and consumers seeking certified organic foods, in particular, will be the most impacted by this decision. But, the general public, our trading partners, and others will also be affected. It really is a question of health and safety, listening to the current science, and erring on the side of caution.

“This is a shocking abdication of responsibility by our regulators. The government has fully turned GM food safety over to companies using confidential, privately owned science,” said Lucy Sharratt, Coordinator of CBAN, in a recent media statement. “Canadians should be aware that the government will no longer be assessing the safety of many new genetically modified foods and seeds. This decision asks Canadian farmers and consumers to trust unseen corporate science. We need independent science, not corporate self-regulation.”

All of this despite a Pollara poll published in April of 2022 that confirms that more than half of all Canadians are seriously concerned about the safety of genetically modified foods. The poll extrapolates that more than half of Canadians want the government to undertake independent safety assessments of genetically modified foods. And 68 per cent of Canadians ( seven out of 10) say they want the government to make it mandatory for all food products that are genetically modified or that contain genetically modified ingredients to be labelled as such.

“Allowing the sale of GM plants and foods without overseeing corporate science puts the health of Canadians and our environment at risk,” said Thibault Rehn of the Quebec network Vigilance OGM (GM Watch), one of the groups supporting the Quebec demonstrations on May 26. “The government has allowed the biotechnology industry lobby to win an end to safety regulation.”

The trajectory of this campaign can be viewed by visiting No Exemptions led by CBAN in Canada For a global perspective on recent research see Gene Editing: Unexpected outcomes and risks.

I guess the good news is that May 22 is recognized as the International Day for Biological Diversity. And also that there are many individuals and organizations that are clear on the need to push back on the lack of assessment and traceability of gene edited seeds and foods.

Numbers will be needed!

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