1999

Tables of Contents


May 1999 to December 1999

Following are the contents of some of our recent issues. Feel free to read the feature article of that issue by clicking on the red titles. If the articles pique your interest, and you'd like to see more, please contact us for a subscription or sample copy. We can also help with serious research. See also our Current Issue page.

#169, May 1999
Canola ­ is it still the best choice?

#170, June 1999>
Labelling and Liability (Codex Alimentarius)

#171, July 1999
Labelling of GE Foods: Consumer "Choice" or Boycott?

#172, August 1999
Eating Plastic Revisited

#173, September 1999
Voluntary Labelling Scam

#174, October-November 1999
Shifty Lobbyists (How the industry promotes biotech, despite reality)

#175, December 1999
Clean Spuds (McCain's rejects GE potatoes)

 


 

Issue 169: Canola - is it still the best choice?

Canola

For the past two years, on the advice of the industry's seed suppliers, buyers and processors(represented by the Canola Council of Canada) there has been no segregation of the GE canola crop fromthe from the remaining non-GE canola. Given the genetic instability of canola (one of the reasons it hasbeen a leading victim of genetic engineering), it is far from certain that there is not 'confusion' orpollution occurring in the field not just between GE and nearby weeds and other crops, but betweenGE and non-GE canola.

This deliberate confusion extends to the grocery store shelf as an inevitable consequence, making itimpossible to label the product properly and adequately even if the industry thought the public shouldknow what it is buying. This puts people who might otherwise like to buy canola oil in the position ofhaving to turn away from all canola oil that is not labelled as 'certified organic'. There is both 'clean'and organic GE free canola grown in Canada, but to the best of our knowledge there is only one verysmall processor in Calgary handling organic canola. Otherwise it goes to the US for processing. The fourbig processors are part of the problem, since they are so big that segregation is not economically feasible.

Now Canada's canola industry is beginning to recognize it may have a problem on its hands. Itdidn't have to be this way. The canola industry could have said to Monsanto, AgrEvo, PGS and othersa few years ago, Thanks but no thanks. We've worked hard to build the reputation of canola as thehealthiest of edible oils on the basis of the best scientific information available and the public isresponding appropriately at home and abroad. We are doing well in the development of desirableagronomic characteristics such as extended growing range and increased yield. We do not want tojeopardize our achievements. We do not want to mess with your genetic manipulations for corporateprofit. Go sell your wares to the corn producers or the soybean producers. (If they bite, their loss will beour gain.)

Canola itself was not the product of genetic engineering. It was produced by means of traditionalplant selection and breeding, starting with the rapeseed varieties that were already cultivated inCanada and helped along with some newfangled lab technology in the late 1950s and early 1960s :

"Keith Downey's scientific work, itself based on his half-seed technique (which used the simpletechnology of an eye-surgeon's scalpel), was dependent on a more complex technology. The analysis ofa half-seed's worth of oil only became possible when the analytical technology of Gas LiquidChromatography became available to him. Prior to this, it took two pounds of oil and two weeks, ratherthan one half-seed and 15 minutes, to obtain an analysis. (The Rape of Canola, p.9)
But it was not just a matter of technology, contrary to the current ideology of science andbiotechnology; it was also a matter of how the work was financed and how knowledge and informationwere openly shared.

Canada Packers was the major food processor in Canada during those years. Bart Teasdale, whoworked in the Canada Packers lab trying to develop processing techniques that could transformrapeseed into an acceptable oil for margarine and salad oil, described the working environment at thetime:

"The financing of our research was quite informal, surprisingly so ... we were just allowed toproceed as necessary... during the 60s and 70s we really didn't have a budget ... The individual plantmanagers were paying the bills ... and they were willing at that time just to say, Yes, we want rapeseed,we want the improvements made, and if this is part of what you have to do, go ahead and do it." (RoC, p.43)
The overall milieu was one of a self-selected group of government, industry and university men ofhighly similar background working together at a common task, largely unconcerned as to who got thecredit, and, apparently, largely without institutional chauvinism. Their institutions were regarded asthe tools or facilitators of the research, not its proprietors. ... Patent attorneys were not involved andPlant Breeders Rights were not even on the horizon. (RoC,p.36-7)

Burton Craig, who worked in the Prairie Regional Lab in Saskatoon at the time, described how this

affected his early work: "A lot of people found the funding themselves for their particular area, andindustry was very good in providing materials. ... There was no direction. The people who wereinterested got together and went ahead and did it." (RoC,p.37)
Such informality did not last long, regarding either money or information. Keith Downey lamented:
"It used to be that we could say to the outside funders, give us enough to get the hands to run this stuff. We won't worry about supplies or travel, we have that in our basic budget, we just need hands. ... Nowbasically the outside money is running the whole show, and you have to stop and say to yourself, wellhow much outside money is really good, how much control do you have, are we doing technology or arewe doing science. I feel today the proportion of science we are doing is getting smaller and smaller andwe are just responding to technology requirements in the way we are approaching our work." (RoC,p.37-8)

By 1974, the public sector researchers, the processors, and farmers had produced an agronomicallysatisfactory rapeseed with the desired oil and meal characteristics and they began to use the name'canola' to refer to the new varieties meeting their quantifiable standards.

The name 'canola' was initially registered by the Western Canadian Oilseed Crushers Association for reference to oil, meal, protein extractions, seed and seed hulls from or of varieties with 5% or less erucic acid in the oil and three milligrams per gram or less of the normally measured glucosinolates in the meal. The canola trademark was transferred to the Canola Council in 1980. ... In 1986 the canola trademark was amended by the Trade Marks Branch of Consumer and Corporate Affairs to indicate that canola oil must contain less than 2% erucic acid and the solid component of the seed must contain less than 30 micromoles per gram of glucosinolates. In response to a petition from Canada, the United States, in 1985, affirmed low erucic acid rapeseed oil (LEAR oil) as a food substance Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS). The use of 'canola' on food labels in the U.S. was cleared late in 1988. (RoC p.27)

It was not long, however, before Monsanto, opportunistic as always, saw the potential in canola.As Monsanto Canada's director of agricultural research and development, Harvey Glick told me in 1992,the company had been working since 1987 to 'improve' canola. "The first improvement we would liketo bring to canola is a trait that allows it to be sprayed with Roundup herbicide. ... We are not doing ourown breeding, but we are saying to the breeders, you develop the best lines of canola and we will giveyou this gene." I asked Glick if he really meant 'give', and he responded, "We are still discussing thiswith the seed companies." (p.64-5) It is now quite obvious that Monsanto had no intention of givinganything away, and there are now more than 200 varieties of canola on the Canadian market, makingit impossible for any farmer to make an 'informed choice', regardless of how the seeds might be labelled. (Statistics Canada estimates that 14 million acres will be seeded to canola in Canada this year,compared to 13.5 million in 1998, with approximately half of this being transgenic, herbicide tolerant (Roundup Ready) varieties sold by a number of companies, including Cargill.

Now a Reuters news release reports that "Escalating public concern over Genetically ModifiedOrganisms (GMOs) in the food sector has prompted Canada's canola industry to launch an educationprogram and warn that the banning of GMOs would lead to higher costs for canola consumers."

Mike Jubinville of ProFarmer Canada, another farmer advisory service, believes that there maybe a slowdown in the usage of the GE canola when the public outcry hits its peak, but "there is littleturning back now. ...The level of consumer acceptance worldwide may take some time, but it is boundto happen," he said. "And while Europe is the real bastion of resistance, eventually that obstinacy willbe eroded." (source: Reuters, 17/5/99, email)

Of course, there is a elegantly simple solution to all this: ban GE canola altogether. Think of howsimple life would become for the canola growers, processors, and the public if GE were simply out of thequestion.

So if you are feeling obstinate, and not particularly in need of erosion, you might want to shareyour obstinance (and concerns) with store managers, the Canola Council, the Canadian OilseedProcessors Association, or one or more of the distributors of canola oil, such as Sunfresh(Weston/Loblaw/Superstore), Canbra, etc. just use the address on the bottle.


Sample letter or postcard:
Address to:
Canola Council, 400 - 167 Lombard Ave, Winnipeg, MB, R3B 0T6

Canadian Oilseed Processors Association, 2150 - 360 Main St., Winnipeg, MB, R3C 3Z3

As a consumer, I am happy with the quality and versatility of canola oil and am proud of its Canadian origins. However, I want you to know that I do not want to eat genetically engineered food. I am aware that these products are approved by government agencies. Nevertheless, I will not be buying any more canola oil unless it is certified organic or comes from a company with a clear policy and procedure in place to exclude GMOs from their products. I am looking forward to receiving your response on this issue.

Issue 170: Labelling and Liability

The 27th session of the Codex Alimentarius Committee on Food Labelling met in Ottawa, 27-30 April of this year. (Canada is the host country for this aspect of the work of Codex.) Canada, along with a number of other countries, went to the meeting with draft recommendations, which were complementary, if not identical, to the U.S. draft. Codex Alimentarius was established in 1962 by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations "to guide and promote the elaboration and establishment of definitions and requirements for foods, to assist in their harmonization and, in doing so, to facilitate international trade". (This is Codex Alimentarius, 1995) Like other international agencies and processes of a governmental or para-statal nature, very often the real power points and issues of Codex may be hidden in subtle linguistic formulations. Shifts in political position may never be stated, but the keen observer can note them in changes in language, as with the April meeting of the Codex Committee on Food Labelling.

Canada went into the meeting in full agreement with the US, apparently, that there can and should be NO labelling of 'foods produced through biotechnology.' This phrase, which does not distinguish between product and process, has been the terminology used in Codex up to now.

Canada came out of the meeting as chair of a committee charged with trying to negotiate a way out of the impasse over the labelling of GE foods which was created by the intransigence of the US and its corporate sponsors that there can be no labelling of GE foods on the one hand, and the insistence by the vast majority of Codex members that there must be labelling.

These unofficial definitions may help you interpret the following discussion:
€ modern biotechnology: genetic engineering [warning, a dirty word]
€ substantial equivalence: we say it's the same
€ no longer equivalent: the regulator has to prove it is different
€ sound science: magic blessing

Going into the meeting, Canada's recommendations included the following: "Canada considers that Codex standards must be based on sound science and be consistent with international trade agreements... Canada ... supports the proposed mandatory labelling of foods and food ingredients obtained by modern biotechnology ... which are 'no longer equivalent' to the existing or conventionally produced food or food ingredients in respect to composition, nutritional value, or intended use."

This recommendation was elaborated in a note: Foods obtained through modern biotechnology are no longer equivalent if it can be demonstrated, through an appropriate analysis of data, that the characteristics assessed, in comparison to the conventional comparator (conventional foods or food components already available in the food supply), are different with respect to accepted limits of natural variation for that food. Three items are notable here: 1) the adherence to traditional reductionist logic that it is only the object, the product, that counts; 2) the use of the term 'modern biotechnology' in order to avoid having to speak the more accurate phrase 'genetic engineering'; and 3) the shift from use of the term 'substantial equivalence' to 'no longer equivalent'.

What lies behind this are the issues of 'burden of proof' and liability.

Burden of responsibility

In its draft comments prior to the meeting, the United States pointed to the dissatisfaction of many countries and public interest groups with the idea of 'substantial equivalence' and said that it, "believes that currently there is still a lack of uniformity in the international community regarding the application of substantial equivalence, and it would be difficult for Codex to reach a consensus on the use of the term 'substantial equivalence' for the purpose of labelling foods obtained through biotechnology... Thus, the United States believes that the term 'substantial equivalence' should be removed from the proposed draft recommendations, and the proposed draft recommendations should be modified as follows: 'When a food or food ingredient obtained through biotechnology ... differs significantly from a corresponding existing food or food ingredient...'"

Up to now, when Monsanto has applied for approval of a transgenic product it has had to show that the product is 'substantially equivalent' to its natural counterpart in order to avoid regulation of the product as a 'novel food'. The burden of proof, as weak and unscientific as it was, rested on Monsanto. But the company, and others, have wanted to shift the burden of proof, and with it the liability in case of bad consequences, to the regulator. To avoid drawing public attention to the matter, Monsanto and the industry as a whole have tried to make subtle changes in language, such as from 'substantial equivalence' to 'no longer equivalent.' If accepted, this would mean that it is now up to the regulator to find, or prove, the product in question 'no longer equivalent' to an accepted food. This shift would also mean that liability for the product would rest on the regulator, not the company, which is the whole point.

The drafters of the US position obviously knew that they were using the acknowledged disagreement over the term 'substantial equivalence' as an excuse to replace it with 'differs significantly' in order to avoid public discussion and any democratic interference, while shifting of the burden of proof and liability. The desire to do so is, of course, an interesting acknowledgement that there may well be consequences of genetic engineering for which the industry does not want to be held responsible!

The United States argued its position in these words: "The United States does not believe that disclosure of the method of production should be required. ... The United States has seen no evidence to support that, as a class, foods obtained through biotechnology are inherently less safe or differ in quality or any other manner from foods obtained through conventional methods."

The U.S., with its customary arrogance, then adds that international standards that are not consistent with US domestic requirements are ipso facto 'impractical and inequitable': "Mandatory labelling of the method of plant modification would be inconsistent with applicable United States laws and resulting food labelling regulations and policy. ... Providing information regarding the method of production on the food label would be highly impractical and inequitable."

The logical alternative not to engage in genetic engineering in the first place is clearly beyond con-sideration, however rational it might be.

The outcome of the April meeting certainly was not what might have been predicted. By the end of the meeting only Argentina supported the US, while Canada and everyone else distanced themselves from the hard-line position of the US. (Argentina's position is easily explained by the figures on page 6 indicating that it is the second largest producer of transgenic crops after the US.) The chair ruled that the meeting "agreed to return to Step 3 for redrafting." In other words, the issue was at a standstill.

The following "Proposed Draft Recommendations for the Labelling of Foods Obtained Through Biotechnology" are from the official report of the meeting:

(41) The Delegation of the United States pointed out that there was no scientific basis to require systematic labelling of foods containing or obtained from genetically modified organisms and that only those foods which differed significantly from their conventional counterpart as regards composition, use or nutritional quality should be specifically labelled. The Delegation also stressed the difficulties of implementing systematic labelling requirements, indicated that distinctions based on the mode of production might imply that foods produced from GMOS were not safe, and expressed concern about the possibility of misleading negative labelling by competitors. This position was supported by the Observers from IFCGA, ASSINSEL and CRN [all industry organizations] who stressed that labelling of all foods produced from GMOs would be contrary to the general principles of labelling in Codex, would provide misleading information to consumers and would not be enforceable in practice.

(42) The Delegation of Argentina stressed the importance of the role of science and risk analysis as a basis for decisions in Codex, and pointed out that there was no scientific basis for requesting information on the mode of production in the specific case of biotechnology, especially as this would not offer any additional guarantee concerning the safety of the food.

(43) The Delegation of Germany, speaking on behalf of the member states of the European Union, indicated its clear preference for the alternative proposal based on the principle of mandatory labelling, noting however that this proposal required some amendments. The Observer from the EC indicated that, in order to allow consumers to make an informed choice, EC legislation required systematic labelling of all foods or ingredients consisting of or containing GMOs and labelling of foods and ingredients produced from GMOs but not containing them, when they were not any longer equivalent to existing foods or ingredients. The Observer stated that the notion of equivalence was currently evaluated according to the presence in foods or ingredients of DNA or protein resulting from genetic modification, and that these provisions allowed to take into account specific health problems (allergy) and ethical considerations. This position was supported by several delegations, which recalled that there was a strong demand for information on the mode of production from consumers in Europe.

(44) The Delegation of Norway supported mandatory labelling of all products containing or issued from GMOs, as ethical concerns of consumers related to the mode of production should be addressed, and comprehensive labelling [is] essential to ensure consumer confidence in food labelling in general. ... The Delegation of Denmark expressed concern about the fact that the mode of production should be taken into account and therefore all foods containing or derived from biotechnology should be labelled.

(47) The Committee had an exchange of views on the opportunity of applying the recommendations to novel foods which were not produced through biotechnology; some delegations stressed that changes in composition, nutritional value or other characteristics of all foods should be made known to the consumers irrespective of the mode of production, while other delegations and observers supported limiting the scope of the text to foods derived from GMOs. The Committee did not come to a conclusion on this matter.

(48) ... The Committee agreed with the proposal of the Delegation of Canada to consider further how the concept of equivalence could be clarified for the purpose of labelling, which could be achieved by a working group.

(49) The Committee agreed to return the Proposed Draft Recommendations to Step 3 for redrafting by a Working Group coordinated by the Delegation of Canada, which would prepare a revised version for circulation and consideration by the next session.

Since I was unable to attend the meeting, and in the absence of any report on the meeting by the Canadian delegation, I have to rely on the reports of others, the essence of which are: G&M 30/4/99 (CP) "Canada has agreed to lead an international effort to reach consensus on what labelling should be required for genetically modified foods. Canadian officials agreed to chair a working group on the issue after it became apparent there was no hope of consensus at the regular meeting of Codex Alimentarius. ... The main issue is whether mandatory labelling should be required for foods produced through biotechnology. Representatives of 164 countries have been struggling to bridge a wide gap between the United States and the European Union. Consumer representatives say Canada, along with Australia, New Zealand and other countries, has retreated from previous support of the U.S. position, leaving the United States isolated. The U.S. view is that a biotech food should not have to be labelled if it is substantially equivalent to an existing conventional food in nutritional value and intended use. Canada's position has been virtually identical. But Canadian delegates told the meeting this week more work is required to define what is mean by 'substantially equivalent.'"

ACRES USA (e-mail): Steven Sprinkel reported that, "Twenty-three countries and a number of International NGOs were named to a Working Group on Biotechnology by CCFL chair Anne MacKenzie. The US Delegate deferred the chairmanship to Canada in a gesture demonstrating the need to have the leadership of the Working Group represented by a more neutral Codex member. ... Chairperson MacKenzie [noted] that whereas 24% of members showed significant interest in comprehensive labelling in 1998, this year a clear majority of member countries now support labelling of one sort or another."

CBC Radio, 5/ 5/99: Sandra Bartlett reported that "Only the US and Argentina remain opposed to all labelling. Robert Lake, the US delegate, said labelling could be misleading: 'Voluntary labelling will take the form of assertions, either direct or implied, that the food produced through biotechnology is unsafe. And we think that would be a terrible disservice to consumers as well as create an unlevel playing field'."

Somewhere between the time its recommendations for the meeting were made and the conclusion of the meeting itself, Canada's position shifted dramatically. This apparently sudden shift raises a question crucial to the issue of public participation in the Codex processes and the confidence the Canadian public ought to place in the Canadian Codex Interdepartmental Committee.

If the shift in Canada's position was a matter of genuine enlightenment, a sincere recognition of the increasingly vocal public demand for the labelling of foods produced through biotechnology coupled with the growing public antipathy toward the industry game of shifting definitions to obfuscate the issue and to maintain their control, then Canada is to be congratulated.

If, however, this is a case of opportunism in order to provide an opening for the US to back down from its arrogant and unacceptable position against any form of labelling of foods produced through biotechnology, then censure of Canada's deceit is called for.

The question is, which was it?

The following response to my question arrived too late for inclusion in The Ram's Horn #170. Unfortunately it makes it quite clear that Canada's "change" was not a change at all, just an opportunistic ploy. Note the emphasis on "no longer equivalent." - BK

16 Jun 1999
From: Diane Fournier
Consumer Protection and Food Policy Coordination Division
Canadian Food Inspection Agency

Mr. Kneen: ...

In response to your request for clarification on Canada's position on the labelling of foods derived through biotechnology, I would advise that Canada's position has not changed and continues to be that provision of essential label information respecting changes in food safety, composition and nutritional value must remain the first priority for consumers, whether or not foods are derived from biotechnology. Voluntary labelling is an option on condition that it is truthful and not misleading.

During discussions at the CCFL [Codex Committee on Food Labelling], Canada also indicated that the concept of "substantial equivalence" is more appropriate to food safety assessments rather than for labelling considerations. For this reason, Canada indicated support for the mandatory labelling of foods and food ingredients obtained by modern biotechnology which are "no longer equivalent " (as replacement for "no longer substantially equivalent") to the existing or conventionally produced foods in respect to composition, nutritional value or intended use.

Canada is committed to advancing progress on the labelling issue at the international level. In the meantime, the CFIA, in partnership with consumers, health professionals, and the food industry will continue to develop communications tools (for ex.toll-free line 1-877- FOOD-BIO) and explore ways to meet the information needs of consumers, including means other than product labelling.

I hope this clarifies our position.

Sincerely,
Diane Fournier

 

[Note: the phone number provided is that set up by the Food Biotechnology Communications Network, an industry organization jointly financed by the Canadian Government and the biotech industry. The information provided is not exactly unbiased. - BK]

 

 

 

Issue 171: Labelling of GE foods: consumer 'choice' or boycott?

(Also in this issue: "Harmonization, Orchestration, or just plain propaganda?" Canadian Food Iinspection Agency reply to our question of Canada's position on labelling in Codex Alimentarius (see RH#170); rbGH update... and more)

In the brave new world of genetic engineering, things are often not quite what they seem. Potatoes are toxin factories; pigs are human spare parts shops. Even strategies to ensure that our food supply is safe, wholesome, and organized for the benefit of the public, are often not as simple as they may at first appear. Take, for example, the non-moratorium recently achieved by the EU on genetically engineered food products. Or the issue of labelling: why are we calling for labelling of genetically-engineered foods, when what we clearly want is to get rid of them altogether?

Labelling is generally understood to be a matter of nutrition information and of consumer choice, or simply fair trading. Food standards and labelling were established to overcome the laissez faire policy of "buyer beware" of earlier years.

Consumer choice requires that foods be labelled so that people who have physical or religious sensitivities can avoid those products which would offend or harm them: thus we have kosher, vegetarian, and "may contain traces of peanuts" labels. The Canadian government, however, has taken on itself (under industry guidance) to claim that products derived through genetic engineering require no labelling because there are no nutritional differences between these products and their normal counterparts, although no testing is required to prove the claim

The biotech industry, on the other hand, may now be realizing that it has painted itself into a corner by extolling the benefits of biotechnology while trying to hide GE foods from the public. Labelling may be not only inevitable, but even desirable, if the industry can turn the growing public demand for labelling to its own purposes. If it could create a simplistic public demand for labelling, with no fundamental critique of genetic engineering and no mention of corporate control, then it could regain the high ground and proclaim that is simply responding to consumer demand.

In a recent speech to the Monsanto board of directors, none other than the president of the Rockefeller Foundation has called for labelling. This is significant, given that it was the Rockefeller Foundation which laid the ideological and financed the 'scientific' foundations for both the Green Revolution and the development of commercial biotechnology.

"Consumers have a right to choose whether to eat GM foods or not. There are certainly logistic problems in separating crops all the way from field to retail sale but this technology will not be accepted unless consumers feel they have a choice. If consumers wish to be informed whether they are eating GM foods, they have a right to know. Monsanto should come out immediately and strongly in favour of labelling." - Gordon Conway, president, Rockefeller Foundation, remarks prepared for the Monsanto board of directors, June 24, 1999

Conway's remarks may be falling on fertile soil. Following the publication of the Nature article about the Cornell University research on the potential harmful effects of Bt corn on Monarch butterfly larvae, Chemical & Engineering News (31/5/99 ) reported that

"Thomas E. Nickson, a Monsanto regulatory science expert, said he now considers the labelling of genetically modified crops for export inevitable. But, he says, the only way it can work is to have an accepted standard for a label of "GM free" that allows a certain level of contamination, such as 1% genetically modified components.

"Ernest S. Micek, chairman of corn processing giant Cargill, Minneapolis, echoes that view.'Segregation systems that separate various types of genetically modified crops are the wave of the future,' he says, because crops with special end-user traits such as the ability to fight cancer and heart disease will have to be marketed separately. [These are referred to as Identity-Preserved or IP crops - ed.] "Over the past month, nearly all U.S. corn refiners, including Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland, announced that they will not accept any variety of genetically modified corn that has not been approved in Europe. Actually, ADM decided to do so 13 months ago, but it has publicized the decision more in recent weeks, says ADM Senior Vice President Martin L. Andreas. 'This will guarantee we can process the corn into food ingredients for European markets,' he says. Last year, U.S. farmers lost about $200 million in sales of corn and corn products to Europe because the EU has not approved most varieties of genetically modified corn.

"The National Soybean Association has also gotten into the genetic modification fray. It has asked producers not to commercialize additional varieties of genetically modified soybean until they are approved in Europe. In the meantime, it wants companies to develop an effective identity preservation labelling program to keep unapproved varieties out of export channels."

"Consumer choice", then, includes the industrial 'consumers' as well as customers at the grocery store.

Consumer choice, Monsanto style: "Most corn pollen remains within the corn field and monarch larvae can choose to avoid feeding on Bt pollen by feeding on the underside of [milkweed] leaves or on other milkweed leaves with little or no Bt pollen."

Certainly there are those for whom labelling is simply a matter of individual consumer choice and food safety. They argue that a person should be able to choose, or not, foods produced through biotechnology, that is, g.e. foods, or GMOs. But this position is not necessarily opposed to biotechnology and g.e. foods per se. It may be based simply on a real concern about personal health consequences, such as allergenicity.

It may also be a concern with the potential environmental consequences of inadequately tested and badly regulated GMOs While these concerns are real and legitimate, they may lead not to a call for a ban of all g.e.,but simply for a better regulatory process and adequate labelling, or a moratorium until more is known about the potential consequences of genetic engineering.

Colleagues who have questioned the wisdom of a campaign demanding the labelling of genetically engineered foods, or foods produced from genetically engineered ingredients, suggest that the demand for labelling may also amount to little more than an acknowledgement that g.e. food is here to stay. Labelling would be simply a generous concession to the cult of consumer 'choice'.


A ban by any other name would smell as sweet

 

The call for labelling, however, can be much more than an individualistic demand for "consumer choice" and a proof of "safety". It may, in fact, be a strategic means to achieve a de facto boycott of 'foods produced through biotechnology'. It may be a means of voting against the corporate control of food. It may be a means to rejecting all genetic engineering on ethical or moral grounds. It all depends on context, as I have written in Farmageddon.

The situation we are faced with in the case of transgenic canola is a good illustration. Canola was developed from rapeseed some thirty years ago through traditional plant selection and breeding. It has been proclaimed and widely recognized as an unusually 'healthy' oil for human consumption, including being given GRAS status (Generally Recognized As Safe) in the U.S. Add to this its genetic malleability and the scale on which it has come to be grown in Canada and it is obvious why it became one of the first widely produced transgenic plants and foods. (see RH #169)

Then along came Calgene (later bought out by Monsanto) and others who saw canola as an ideal subject for genetic engineering to make the plant herbicide tolerant. Obviously this meant greater sales for the herbicides, such as Liberty and Roundup, produced by the chemical companies turned seed companies.

Now, with more than 50% of the canola grown in Canada genetically engineered for herbicide tolerance, there are a growing number of people who realize something is being put over on them without their knowledge, and that this something may not be good for them. In other words, just as nutritional concerns are moving beyond the four food groups, the public is beginning to realize that they have been excluded, due to lack of labelling, from being able to exercise their values through the food they eat.

Canola has, of course, some rather special properties. It is a 'proudly Canadian' product. It is touted as a particularly healthy oil. It is a single product for which there are alternatives in the marketplace. And, unlike the Bt potato which may well be hazardous to humans with compromised digestive systems, concerns about canola oil are clearly about genetic engineering itself. As the Canola Council of Canada, in the person of Dale Adolph, likes to tell those who take the time to write and object to the unidentified use of transgenic canola seed to produce canola oil, the herbicide tolerance characteristic is a protein that is found only in the meal, not in the oil, after processing. Therefore, says Adolph somewhat disingenuously, the canola oil is not transgenic.

The public has the choice of consuming oil from transgenic canola, or not buying or using canola oil at all unless it is certified organic or comes through a processor able to guarantee the oil to be GE-free. In other words, a de facto boycott of oil from genetically engineered seed. On top of all this, there is the very significant issue of potential environmental damage. Which makes it all very similar to the new de facto moratorium on GE crops and foods in Europe.

In this context, labelling IS a matter of consumer choice, but it is a choice to drive GE foods out of the market and reduce the level of corporate control, not just to get the products of transnational corporations labelled for purposes of individual consumption.

Why not simply call for a ban on genetic engineering, then, if what we are after is to get genetic engineering out of food (including cotton as cottonseed oil) altogether?

Morally, this has its appeal. It sounds simple and straightforward. But if one calls for a ban, who is there to listen? Who, or what agency, is going to institute or legislate a ban? Certainly not Chretien or Clinton, certainly not the Canadian Food Inspection Agency or the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S.

Apart from the political folly of calling for a ban, a call for a ban would raise a great many more issues about the use of biotechnology in drugs, medical treatment and reproductive technology - issues that may be just as important, and socially perhaps even more important, than issues raised by the genetic engineering of food crops. Strategically, it may just be wise to tackle the issues one by one. If the market for GE canola disappears, so will GE canola. This will give us an opportunity to address the other important issues: the bad science which uses the population as guinea pigs for GE products that have been subjected to no long-term testing; the dangers of environmental contamination and genetic deterioration of crop varieties; the corporate control of the whole food system; the real dangers and even the conceivable benefits of biotechnologies under public control and rigorous, transparent regulation.

So it all comes back to a matter of context. How is the call for labelling framed: as a matter of (bourgeois) consumer choice or as a tool to drive GE foods out of the market and off the farm?

The call for labelling is a 'reasonable' demand and as such it is a powerful tool for public education about the dangers of the uncontrolled experiment the biotech industry is conducting on the general public. We know that, to the industry's chagrin, the more the public knows about biotech the less they like it. Once biotech foods are labelled, the markets will disappear and public understanding of, and opposition to, corporate control of the food system will grow.

Addendum: An indication of industry strategy is that where labelling is being called for (EU, Japan, Australia/New Zealand), generous tolerance levels (up to 5% of the final product from GE sources) are proposed, in order to allow for genetic pollution of the crop or product. This is simply not acceptable. Total segregation of GE crops & foods is possible and necessary, just as it is possible and necessary for organic and other identity preserved crops. If the industry says it cannot be done, they are simply lying, because they are already doing it when it suits their business purposes. In any case, there is always the option of not producing GE seeds, crops and food in the first place.

 

 

Issue 176: TNCs Sail On Ð WTO or Not

by Brewster Kneen, with thanks to Ralph Nobles in San Francisco and Jorge Hinestroza in Venezuela


salt

Picture this. A village of 1700 souls on the edge of a nationally and internationally recognized valuable wetlands in the west of Venezuela taking on Cargill, reputedly the world largest private company. The issue: Cargill's attempt to turn the wetlands into huge salt evaporation ponds to produce solar salt for the Venezuelan petrochemical and plastics industries. Cargill is already among the top three salt companies in the world. The region in Venezuela where Cargill is active is to the west of Caracas and the long thin coastal region where the severe flooding and mudslides took place.

It is a repeat of Cargill's performance in India in 1992/3. In India, Cargill lost to the small-scale salt producers, the peasant farmers and others. We trust it will lose in Venezuela as well.

In 1995 Cargill de Venezuela formed a joint venture with Petroquimica de Venezuela SA to produce salt by acquiring a 70% interest in Productora del Sal (Produsal), a Venezuelan company in which Petroquimica already has a substantial interest. Plans called for Produsal to complete construction of a salt-production facility at Los Olivitos in the state of Zulia expected to produce 800,000 tons of salt annually. Petroquimica is a wholly owned subsidiary of Petroleos de Venezuela. source: WSJ:26/9/95

Since 1995 the villagers of Anc¢n de Iturre have been resisting Cargill's efforts to develop salt production in the area.

The Los Olivitos Marsh is a coastal wetland of 33,000 hectares of mangroveswamps, littoral lagoon (estuary), salt marshes, sandy beaches, and dunes lyingwithin the Maracaibo estuary, located between the Gulf of Venezuela (SouthernCaribbean Sea) and Lake Maracaibo. 15,000 hectares of the Olivitos estuary hasalready been declared a Wildlife Refuge and Fishing Reserve under Venezuelan lawand in 1996 this wetland was included in the list of Ramsar sites, that is, a wetland of international importance according to the Ramsar Agreement.

The Los Olivitos marsh receives the waters of El Tablazo Bay on the west and the waters of the Caribbean (Gulf of Venezuela) to the north. It is also fed by the freshwater of the Cocuiza and Palmar Rivers. It is an important resting, feeding and nesting place for many species of birds, as well as being an important trophic area and nursery zone for several commercial fish species, crustaceans, and other aquatic organisms. The mangrove areas of Los Olivitos and San Carlos supply 50% of the catch of Zulia state, most of it coming from the artisan fishery, and Zulia state actually exports white shrimps and blue crabs to the United States.

Through Produsal, Cargill intends to supply all the salt required by the El Tablazo Petrochemical Complex, where Petroquimica de Venezuela (Pequiven) uses salt as a primary material for chlorine production and the manufacture of PVC. Large amounts of salt are also used in the nearby oil field operations in Lake Maracaibo and vicinity.

About three years ago Produsal expropriated about one-third of Los Olivitos wetlands, built a 17- kilometer dike and converted the marshlands to salt ponds to produce about 300,000 tones of salt per year. Now it seeks to increase production to 800,000 to one million tonnes or more. Obviously this would eliminate the traditional small-scale salt works and threaten, if not destroy, the mangrove swamps and the fishery in the Los Olivitos lagoon ecosystem, upon which the people of Anc¢n de Iturre and the neighbouring villages of Bella Vista, Los Jobitos, Sabaneta de Palmas, and Punta de Palmas depend for food and some cash income.


Cargill's 1993 attempted project in India is described in detail in Invisible Giant:
"Encouraged by India's new economic liberalisation, Cargill Southeast Asia obtained approval from the government's Foreign Investment Promotion Board to set up a 100 per cent export-oriented unit to produce one million tonnes of high-quality sun-dried or solar industrial salt a year" [in Kandla Port, Gujarat State], reported the Financial Times of London in mid-1993. Even though it was already producing 5 million tonnes of salt a year at its plants in Western Australia and California, Cargill was seeking new production sites because these sources were not expected to meet future demand."
"Local opposition to the Cargill project took the form of a protest march beginning in surrounding villages and timed to arrive at Kandla Port on May 17th, 1993, the anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi's salt march to the sea in the same state more than 50 years ago."
"In September, 1993, Cargill made a tactical retreat from salt in India. Its press release read: "Cargill today advised the Horourable Court at Kandla in Gujarat that it is no longer interested in building an export-oriented salt works in the Kandla Port Trust area." A Cargill spokesman said that political opposition had played no role in Cargill's withdrawal from the salt project. "It would be a mistake to conclude that we have been deterred by the erroneous and politically motivated claims made by some people regarding this project," he added." Invisible Giant , Cargill and Its Transnational Strategies, Brewster Kneen, Pluto Press, 1995, is available from The Ram's Horn for $16 postpaid in Canada, US$16 postpaid elsewhere

El Tablazo Bay lies northeast of Maracaibo City and is now considered part of Lake Maracaibo. Originally, Lake Maracaibo was almost entirely closed to the sea by a bar which provided an effective obstacle to big oil tankers entering the lake, but this obstacle was overcome by dredging out the bar. The continuous dredging is one of the most important pollution sources in this area due both to the movement of sediment and the increasing salinity of the lake itself. In the past it was not salty because the rivers brought enough fresh water into the lake to keep the sea water out.

The inhabitants of Anc¢n de Iturre have long lived in harmony with the marshes, taking fish from Los Olivitos without damaging the natural resource. The dike that Cargill built three years ago, diverting the rivers that formerly brought fresh water and nutrients to the marshes, has had disastrous consequences for the fish and other organisms living in the marshes. Fishers who used to catch around 1,000 kg per boat three years ago now get just half of that or less.

However, an even greater and more imminent danger than an extension of the dikes is the plan of Produsal to install a pipeline to discharge bittern (amaragos in spanish), a highly-alkaline toxic by- product of salt production, directly into Lake Maracaibo.

Each ton of salt produced generates a metric ton of toxic bittern. Cargill knows very well what the harmful effects of this will be. Twenty-eight years ago Leslie Salt Company, now part of Cargill Salt, commissioned a scientific report titled "Report on Proposed Discharge of Bittern to San Francisco Bay". (March 31, 1972) The report describes the toxicity of bittern and points out that salt production by solar evaporation produces one ton of bittern for each ton of salt produced. The same report indicates that bittern must be diluted at least 100-to-1 with fresh water before losing lethality. Current environment regulations in San Francisco Bay require that Cargill Salt dilute its bittern discharge at least 300-to-1 and then release it only during an extra-strong ebb tide and at locations where there will be strong mixing and tidal dispersion. These conditions are so stringent that bittern is currently not discharged but is stored in diked bittern ponds.

Being well aware of the vital role of the marshes, a year ago the men, women and children of all the fishing families of Los Olivitos stopped the installation the bittern pipeline by placing themselves in the way of the construction machinery. Fortunately no one was injured. But they achieved even more than halting construction of the pipeline, because a municipal representative notified the National Guard about the protest and Guard officials came to monitor the demonstration. While at the site, they had the opportunity to conduct a close inspection of the pipeline and found that the size of the pipe exceeded the permitted diameter and capacity as authorized by the environmental authorities. Not only had Produsal (Cargill-Pequiven) obtained illegal permission to install the pipeline but they were installing a larger pipe (13") than that specified by the illicit license (10"). It became obvious that corrupt Ministry of Environment officials had authorized the work illegitimately and that Produsol was doing whatever it pleased anyway.

At that point Produsal retreated and the Environmental Ministry cancelled the permit and assured the villagers that a public hearing would be held before a new permit was issued. No hearing was called and in mid-April a hundred fishermen and their families from Anc¢n de Iturre gathered in Maracaibo to request that Produsal's General Manager and a regional officer meet with the community representatives. The community chairwoman, Lic.Yuleida Huerta, who herself comes from a fisher family and is a teacher in a rural school located near to Anc¢n de Iturre, and the fishermen submitted the following demands:

1) The creation of a committee composed of representatives of Produsal, Ministry of the Environment and the community, to investigate the consequences of Cargill's production methods.
2) The total elimination of the discharge of bittern, a toxic by-product of solar salt production (bittern discharge is not allowed into San Francisco Bay from Cargill's salt operations there).
3) Development of a bittern waste treatment system to protect El Tablazo and Carribbean waters. Cargill must apply the same strict care for protecting La Cienage de Los Olivitos Wildlife Refuge as it is required to use to protect the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay Wildlife Refuge.
4) Dismantling of Produsal's pumping system which takes water directly from the lagoon within the Refuge.
5) Removal of the obstacles that stop the water flow from Cocuiza and El Palmar rivers into the Refuge.
6) The development and adoption of an ecosystem plan and programs to protect the Cocuize and El Palmar river basins. (Very important for the health of the Refuge.)

In April, Yuleida Huerta also wrote a letter to the people in the San Francisco Bay area who share concerns about Cargill's salt operations. "Today, through these lines, I am able to express the bitter sadness of just thinking about what uncertain future is expected for the children and grandchildren of these wonderful and humble fishermen of this community, who live the horror of seeing how infernal machines extract the rich water containing hundreds of species, in the form of tiny eggs, larvas, and young fishes, from our lagoon in order to convert it into huge piles of salt. This represents the death of our lagoon and hunger and poverty for us."

Although the promised hearing never did take place, all remained quiet until just before Christmas when Produsal crews reappeared (on December 22nd) with a new pipeline permit and again laid out tubing on the public lands of the Refuge. Feeling betrayed by the Environmental Ministry that had issued a new permit without a public hearing, the angry villagers of Anc¢n de Iturre, now joined by residents of the neighboring villages of Belle Vista, Jobitos and Punta de Palmas, formed a 1000-strong protest and demanded both a meeting with Produsal representatives and that the pipes be taken back to salt company property.

The Produsal engineer that came to talk to the people disregarded their demand and even teased the crowd. When Yuleida gave Produsal a deadline for removing the pipeline, the response of the engineer was to make fun of her. When the time limit was up, the people began to burn the pipeline, reducing almost half a kilometre of the hated pipe to puddles of molten PVC.

Meanwhile, at some distance out of reach of the stones that "rained" abundantly an amazed group of elegant managers of the company watched.

When a Produsal truck with a policeman and armed Produsal security guards appeared and shots were fired toward the crowd, the historically peaceful fishermen became enraged and proceeded to upset and burn the truck as well.

Some members of the National Guard that arrived a little later asked with amazement how it was possible that Produsal had tried to discharge bittern in a recognized Refuge and they even shared some of the food that the fishermen prepared for the protesters.

When the National Guard authorities invited the community leaders to tell them what happened, Yuleida said that they were going to declare their responsibility for the events described above because the people of Anc¢n de Iturre are tired of the deceit and traps of Produsal and the government.

Produsal has now charged Yuleida with riot and the National Guard has been ordered by the public prosecutor to investigate the case. Our lawyers, wrote Jorge Hinestroza on January 2nd, are already on the case and think that Produsal has made a lot of legal mistakes and that the company lawyer mishandled the situation. "So we feel very safe. Anyway, as we say, 'we will turn the cake over,' and Produsal will regret it. This case will probably also provoke a real scandal against Cargill itself. Meanwhile, it has already aroused a lot of support from the other communities that know Yuleida as an upright leader. I would have liked to have been there when Yuleida and the other five accused fishermen went to the National Guard office to attend the citation. A crowd of neighbours from Anc¢n and others communities went with them, and the officials were amazed by the unprepared demonstration. Produsal must be wondering if it should continue this senseless persecution. Cargill is increasing the defiance of the rest of the fishermen in different communities."

We'll let you know how it turns out.

Issue 177: A Meal of Potatoes

Public sector plant breeding produces one tough potato Robert Plaisted, Cornell University professor emeritus of plant breeding, and his colleagues, Bill Brodieand William Fry, professors in Cornell's plant pathology department, have just introduced a new potato New York 121. This small white potato is able to fend off late blight (the fungus P. Infestans, of "Irishpotato-famine" fame) as well as both races of golden nematodes, scab and potato virus Y (PVY).

The development of New York 121 dates back more than 30 years when Plaisted acquired seedsof potato varieties grown in the Andes mountains of South America. Repeated selection for adaptationto the New York region and for disease resistance produced the selection E74-7, the mother of NY 121.This selection was important because of its extreme resistance to potato mosaic viruses.

In 1984 Plaisted obtained seeds from the International Potato Centre in Peru that had resistanceto multiple races of the golden nematode, a soil-borne pest. One generation of breeding producedN43-288, the male parent of New York 121. This parent is mostly of Peruvian ancestry, but includesa wild species from Argentina. By dusting the female's (E74-7) pistil with the male's (N43-288) pollennine years ago, Plaisted bred a potato with multiple resistance.

New York 121 is a mid-season potato that will be good for boiling, perhaps even baking, but it isnot a good potato for making French fries or chips. Brodie explains that there are yield trade-offs inexchange for disease resistance, but overall he is happy about the potato.

In addition to the New York 121, Cornell also is introducing two other potato varieties, Keuka Goldand Eva. Keuka Gold is a yellow-flesh potato, good for boiling, which will be known for its flavour andhigh yields. It is also resistant to scab and golden nematodes. Eva has a bright white skin, also good for boiling, and it is resistant to the mosaic virus, goldenNematode, and scab. It has an unusually long tuber dormancy, which means the potato can be storedlonger.

The seed for New York 121 could be available as early as next season from the New YorkFoundation Seed Farm at Lake Placid, N.Y. Cornell University News Service, 9/2/00 As I reported in Farmageddon, Plasisted has also been responsible for a naturally bred potato quitecapable of warding off pests such as the Colorado Potato Beetle (CPB) and the leaf hopper.

"in 1992, researchers at Cornell University were playing with a hybrid potato bred from a wild type, solanumBerthaulthi, that has thin hairs on its foliage ... which secrete a sticky substance that traps and kills small insectsas they feed or reproduce. ... The CPB, for example, gets a serious case of constipation from the sticky secretionwhich causes its stomach to bloat, crushing its ovaries and curtailing its reproduction. Robert Plaisted, the Cornellprofessor doing the research, said the potato tastes like any other but comes equipped with the best method yetof providing a broad spectrum of resistance to insects. Plaisted says this "new" potato has found favour mainlywith organic growers. He hopes to have other varieties with similar characteristics available in the newmillennium.

"When I asked him about transgenic Bt potatoes, Plaisted told me that one of the problems with them is thatthey offer no deterrent to the leaf hopper, which is actually a bigger problem than the potato beetle because thehopper is very small and the damage is done before the farmer realizes there is a problem. When I asked whetherthe fascination with genetic engineering was affecting his research, he replied that fortunately he received specialgrants from the USDA and from an international foundation. Without those his work would not be possible.

Farmageddon, pp.103-4