Issue 179

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The Ram's Horn #179, April 2000

A Common Script
by Brewster Kneen

Once upon a time, probably in 1993, I attended a consultation in Ottawa that was, ostensibly, to help government shape the regulation of biotechnology, including labelling. It was a small group, essentially self-selected, with government and industry well represented along with the Consumers Association. A few of us without a vested interest in the industry were also there, from Canadian Organic Growers and the Canadian Environmental Network, because we were concerned about the direction the government was taking this 'novel' industry. The consultation, like a second one a year later, did not reach a consensus, although industry and government voices have presented the pro-industry outcome ever since as if there had been. The report on the 1994 workshop, for example, states that "workshop participants generally agreed on the following... Mandatory labelling of all food products derived from genetic engineering would be meaningless and should not be required. . ."

In the fall of 1999 at a conference at McMaster University, I was surprised to hear Mary Lou Garr of AGCare using my attendance at the 1993 meeting to legitimize the process of misrepresentation and manipulation that has characterized such "public" consultations ever since. I took the opportunity to correct her interpretation and to point out that there has been nothing democratic about the process of developing public policy for biotechnology. I told Garr, and the group, that I was there only because I insisted on being present as one of the very few members of the public who had any idea of what was going on in Ottawa. I pointed out that I did this on my own time, and at my own expense.

This past February Dale Adolph of the Canola Council, at a meeting in Saskatoon, made the same use of my presence at that one consultation. I again informed the audience that there was nothing public or democratic about the so-called consultative process of forming biotech policy and that there never was a consensus on the emerging policy.

When Stephen Yarrow of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) pulled the same trick at a meeting a couple of weeks ago in Kelowna, B.C., at which I was present, it was no longer possible to avoid drawing the conclusion that this little script had been photocopied and sent around to all industry flacks from some central propaganda agency. This conclusion was underscored when I heard that Yarrow had said the same thing at meetings when I was not present. I suppose I should be flattered that the industry thinks I carry such weight that the invocation of my name will legitimize their manipulation.

Soon after I attended that notorious meeting, a woman named Joyce Byrne became the head of the Biotech Strategies and Coordination Office of Agriculture Canada which became, in 1997, the biotech office of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). Joyce subsequently changed employers and became, as Joyce Groot, head of the Food Biotechnology Communications Network, an industry lobby organization. From there she moved up to the position of president of BIOTECanada, the successor to the Canadian Institute of Biotechnology (CIB) which Rick Walter had headed. In her current position Joyce Groot has become a major spokesperson for the global biotech industry, most recently in regard to the Biosafety Protocol.

It is also interesting to note who composed the 'steering committee' for the 1994 workshop since the list includes the industry representatives who have constituted the industry PR steering committee all along; people such as Jeannie Cruikshank of the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors, Phyllis Tanaka, now of CFIC (the Canadian subsidiary of IFIC, the International Food Information Council), Laurie Curry of what is now the Food and Consumer Products Manufacturers of Canada, along with a representative from the Consumers Association of Canada, one from the Canadian Dietetic Association, and seven from government departments.

It is vitally important not to underestimate the manipulation and misrepresentation that is taking place in a frantic, not to say hysterical, campaign to convince the public that we really love GE and will starve in a polluted environment without biotech. We ignore the deceitful, highly centralized and extremely well-funded character of the campaign at our peril.

Just look at the use--and misuse--of language. For example, farm writer Jim Romahn has told readers of Ontario Farmer (22/2/00) how "spin doctors continue their search for words that will elicit stronger public support for genetically modified foods." He reports that Andy Benson of IFIC says none of the terms that have been tried have been working. Transgenics is out, and consumers have negative attitudes about genetically-modified foods, about novel foods, about genetically-altered foods, and about genetic engineering, he said. What does that leave? According to Romahn, "the spin doctors are leaning towards 'food improvement' and 'enhancement' now, but Benson said the industry hasn't found anything that's really good." The public, he notes, becomes "more accepting" of GE foods "when the technology is presented as the latest step in a long evolution of plant breeding and farming practices."

Ottawa-based agricultural writer Henry Heald expresses the party line in the current issue of Country Life in BC:

"If our aim is to produce better crops and livestock without the use of chemicals, then isn't genetic modification of the plant and the animal the way to go? In fact, isn't that the way we have been going for generations? . . . "Equating genetic modification with chemical pollution is a public relations ploy used by radical environmental groups who are more interested in slamming the multinational corporations than they are in ensuring that people eat healthy, wholesome food. . . . "Mother Nature has been exercising genetic modification since time began. . . . "Scientists have learned how to manipulate DNA . . . That is the one thing that is new in the science of biotechnology. So plant breeders and animal geneticists can make genetic modifications that couldn't be made in the field, but it is still organic."

The colourful little booklet "Food Safety and You", distributed recently to every household in Canada at a cost of $25.3 million (23 cents x 11 million copies, according to the CFIA), spins the same line of misinformation, while also emphasizing that it is the responsibility of the consumer to ensure food safety by proper cleaning and cooking of foods. For a more extensive expression of the current industry spin, try the website, one aspect of the new $50 million propaganda campaign just launched against us by the world's seven biggest 'life-sciences' companies: Aventis CropScience, BASF, Dow Chemical, DuPont, Monsanto, Novartis, Zeneca Ag Products, and BIO (the US Biotech Industry Organization). The $50 million is just the first year's budget for the Council for Biotechnology Information, and part of it is going for TV spots. The first of these was created by BSMG Worldwide, a unit of True North Communications Inc of Chicago, "specialists in crisis management and consumer awareness campaigns," according to the New York Times.

Now, while it may sound absurd, we might just wonder if Industry Canada is contributing to this $50 million budget. After all, it is a dues-paying member of BIOTECanada, which it has generously supported both in its present form and when it was the CIB. There has, to be fair, been some concern within Industry Canada over whether it is proper for the department to be a member of a group that has as one of its principal purposes influencing the decisions of government departments, especially Industry, Agriculture and Health: Joyce Groote is registered on behalf of BIOTECanada's 115 members to lobby 16 government institutions, including Industry Canada, the Privy Council Office, Health Canada, Environment Canada and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT).

According to Intra-departmental memos obtained through the Access to Information Act by researcher Ken Rubin, Industry Canada renewed its membership in BIOTECanada last December after the industry organization agreed to slash annual dues from $6,500 to $1,000 to accommodate the pleas of Dr. George Michaliszyn, director of the Bio-industries Branch of Industry Canada.

Over the past 15 months, Industry Canada has also issued to BIOTECanada at least four separate research contracts worth a minimum of $117,000. Two of the contracts were to study the positive or negative effects of research and development tax credits on biotechnology companies. In the disclosures of its lobbying activity required under federal law, BIOTECanada also reports receiving $150,000 from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and $34,000 from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). source: Ottawa Citizen, 10/4/00

Voluntary Labelling

In the last issue of The Ram's Horn ("Standards and Hidden Agendas") I questioned the process that the Canadian Organic Advisory Board has gotten itself into with the Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB) and the Standards Council of Canada (SCC). I pointed out that the process for producing the draft organic standards under the CGSB is being used as a template for the development of what was originally to be a voluntary standard for the labelling of foods produced through biotechnology (the term still used by Codex Alimentarius).

"Accredited by the Standards Council of Canada, the CGSB offers standards development services, ISO 9000 and ISO 14000 registration, and maintains an extensive certified and qualified products and services list." The products covered range from Firefighters' Protective Clothing (an obviously significant standard) to Floor Type Tobacco, Ash Receiver, Metal or Plastic (one does have to wonder about this one). from Calibre, the CGSB newsletter

More recently I received from the CGSB a document titled, "Update on Preliminary Work Towards First Draft Standard, 1 March 2000, CGSB Standard for Voluntary Labelling of Foods Obtained or Not Obtained Through Genetic Modification".

Now, the original mandate of this project, in response to the peculiar initiative taken by the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors and the Minister of Agriculture last fall, was to develop a "standard on the voluntary labelling of foods obtained through biotechnology."

The work of the CGSB is done by working groups and staff, with infrequent meetings of the whole voting committee. The voting members now number 58, with all biotech industry groups represented, including several from the University of Guelph, as you might expect. According to the CGSB Policy Manual (1994), Standards Committees should have between 15 and 30 members and "all interested and affected parties are encouraged to participate in the development of the standard." There is, however, to be "balanced representation," meaning that "no single category of interest representation can dominate the voting procedures of the committee." (The CGSB is still having trouble obtaining the required balanced representation because a large number of organizations and individuals, such as myself, refused on principle to participate as voting members. We did not want to lend credibility to an obviously rigged process a wise decision in light of my experience reported above. I still get all the CGSB documentation as a non-voting ' information member.') The membership list is available from the CGSB. Contact: Marian Gaucher, ph:819-956-1594, fx:956-5740, email: marian

Shifting the Burden of Proof

One of the first acts of the CGSB committee, at its first full meeting last November, was to change its name and the mandate. The new name: Committee on Voluntary Labelling of Foods Obtained or Not Obtained Through Genetic Engineering. At its second meeting, in January, the title was further amended with Genetic Modification replacing Genetic Engineering. Hence the current title.

It is obviously no accident that the change to "obtained or not obtained" has shifted the burden of proof from the producer/marketer of GE foods to the producer/marketer of non-GE foods. This becomes clear in the "New Proposed National Standard of Canada" dated 16 March 2000, which puts GE Free foods in a category parallel to Certified Organic, and uses the organic standards as a template for GE Free certification procedures.

For example: under Compliance Measures, there is a subsection that says, "An enterprise seeking GM Free certification shall prepare a production plan." There follows a list of measures, including documentation, the enterprise will have to implement to achieve "GM Free" certification. Section 5.6.1 reads: "Integrity: a major objective of a GM Free system is to maintain the inherent qualities of the product from production, processing, storage, handling and labelling, to the point of sale."

No such objective of integrity is given for GE foods, and obviously, given the climate of public opinion, no producer, processor or distributor is going to voluntarily label a product as "Certified GM."

The net effect of this will be that the burden of proof--and the cost--has been squarely placed on the producer of non-genetically engineered foods while GE foods remain anonymous and without integrity.

This is clearly the anticipated fruit of the strategy to privatize responsibility for labelling. Agriculture Canada, the CFIA, and Health Canada escape both responsibility and liability this way, again not by accident, while the biotech industry gets off scot-free. This scenario was probably mapped out in advance by Industry Canada with the "voluntary" compliance of the other departments and the assistance of yet-to-be-named PR firms.

Which means that we will have to continue to demand that the minister of agriculture, Lyle Vanclief carry out his responsibility for the mandatory labelling of all foods produced through biotechnology. Or better, not to allow them on the market in the first place.

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