A Food Fight Takes Root

By Angela Bischoff and Tooker Gomberg, Montréal, PQ.

At a U.N-sponsored meeting in Montreal, a fight is brewing between the industry that is promoting genetically-mutated food, and countries that may want to be cautious and not import these “frankenfoods”.

There’s something unnatural about mixing apples and oranges. Similarly, who likes the idea of inserting scorpion genes into corn, or fish genes into tomatoes?

Somebody’s messing around with the genetic makeup of the planet, and it ain’t the Almighty. Mutant corn and canola are being made in Monsanto’s image (the same folks that brought us Agent Orange and toxic PCB’s), or in the labs of the likes of Dupont (they brought us weapons grade plutonium and CFC’s).

Most Canadians don’t trust these new concoctions. A recent national poll conducted for the Council of Canadians by Environics Research Group shows that three-quarters of those familiar with genetically-engineered (GE) foods are worried about safety.

This week, GMO’s (genetically-modified organisms) are on the plate of a U.N. meeting in Montreal, and delegates from over 130 countries are gathered to craft international rules to control the shipment of GMOs around the world and reduce the possibility of genetic pollution. It is the final chapter in negotiations that began at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, when governments signed the Biodiversity Convention. The centrepiece of this convention was the “conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity”.

As part of the convention, a Biosafety Protocol was to be concluded last year in Cartagena, Columbia. But it unravelled thanks to a small handful of countries, led by… Guess who? Canada.

Last week, informal meetings got off to a lively start when Joyce Groote, chairwoman of the Global Industry Coalition of biotechnology proponents, was pie-ed at a news conference. With the trademark cry of “Gloop, gloop” the fleeing entartiste (pie thrower) dashed out the door. And earlier this week, federal Health Minister Alan Rock met his crust. Clearly some Montrealers don’t want genetic experiments shoved down their throats.

Just months ago, GMO’s were hardly even on the radar screen in Montreal. But on Saturday, over a thousand francophones and anglophones gathered together at the Université de Québec à Montréal for a day long teach-in, learning about, strategizing against, and protesting the dangers of mutant foods.

More than 600 lively protestors braved minus 45 degree temperatures (factoring in the wind chill) to express their concern. “Vive la évolution” read one placard; other protesters waved paper plates emblazoned with “No GMO’s On My Plate”.

The negotiations underway this week in Montreal are stuck on several points, with the so called Miami Group – primarily grain exporting countries (Canada, the U.S., Argentina, Australia, Chile and Uruguay) – lining up against the rest of the world.

Will GMO’s be regulated to protect the environment, or will trade rule the day? The Miami Group wants ‘trade über alles’. They believe that disputes should be decided by the World Trade Organisation. Non-governmental organizations argue that the health of the environment should take precedence over the corporate drive for profit.

Another issue revolves around the “precautionary principle”. If a country has concerns about public or environmental health of mutant foods, this principle would allow precaution as the basis for a country to ban the import. In other words, mutant foods could be considered guilty until proven innocent. The six countries of the Miami Group aren’t keen on the precautionary principle.

Mutant food has arrived swiftly and silently. According to Maude Barlow, Chairperson of the Council of Canadians, “In 1995, no genetically-modified crops were grown for commercial sale. Last year, 73 million acres of genetically-modified crops were grown world-wide. Until very recently, this happened outside any public debate or education.”

Much of the soy, canola and corn in Canada is already genetically-engineered, likely including your coveted corn flakes, kids. Tony the Tiger, cross bred with Frankenstein, was part of Saturday’s crowd snaking through the streets of Montreal. Franken-Tony, a Greenpeace creation, had a decidedly green, sickly tinge as he shook a box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. While this same box of corn flakes in England is free of GMOs, its Canadian counterpart likely contains genetically-modified corn; something activists call a double-standard. European consumers have been winning an all-out battle against mutant foods in Europe; now it looks as though North America is catching a similar allergic reaction.

At Saturday’s teach-in, speakers from around the world outlined their concerns and their battles to ensure that the world’s biodiversity is protected. We learned that the European Union has adopted a de-facto halt to the commercial release of any new GE crops until at least 2001, and that major food retailers have banished GE products from their shelves.

Thai farmers are protesting in the streets against GE crops. In Equador, a GE shipment coming in from the U.S. last week was blocked by citizens. Hong Kong recently mandated labelling of genetically mutated food. The British Medical Association is recommending an open-ended moratorium on the release of GMO’s into the environment.

In the U.S., Jeremy Rifkin, with a team of hundreds of lawyers, has brought forward charges that Monsanto and nine other co-conspirators are amassing a global GE cartel, charging them with fraud and misrepresentation. His legal team argues that the patenting of genetically-modified life forms is illegal.

And although Canada’s own McCains announced in November that it will not accept GE potatoes, we Canadians have had no public debate about the issue. The Canadian government refuses to even require labelling of food.

Worse yet, “The Chretien government has taken one of the most aggressive anti-environmental positions of any country on this issue… What Canada wants this week (with the Biosafety Protocol) is an environmental agreement that will protect its trade and commercial interests, not the safety of farmers or of the natural world” proclaimed Maude Barlow to an overflow crowd of 700 or more. “Shame on our governments for playing god with our health and the very existence of the planet with this dreadful experiment of GE foods.”

For millennia, the strength of ecosystems has been built on diversity. Diversity represents the world’s biological and cultural heritage, helping to ensure food security. Genetically-modified foods, on the other hand, are about centralising control in the hands of a few profit-driven transnational chemical corporations who are seated alongside the Miami Group’s official delegations, refusing to allow countries the right to say no to GE products.

Concerns about GE foods include unknown health risks, liability, and contamination of neighbouring plants. Who pays if a mutant species runs amok, reproducing uncontrollably or cross-pollinating other plants? Genetic pollution from GMO’s could make existing foreign infestations like zebra mussels or kudzu look like a garden party.

In a U.S. study, pollen from corn crossed with Bt toxin killed monarch butterflies. And British scientist Dr. Pusztai found that young rats fed genetically mutated potatoes developed organ disorders and immune deficiencies. (Within 48 hours of releasing his results, he was fired, and all his data confiscated.) Clearly a lot is at stake.

Global capital is duking it out with global citizenship, and terminator technology (genetically-mutated crops that produce sterile seeds) is going head-to-head with our global heritage. It is a time of big battles, like that of Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser who is suing Monsanto alleging that their GE canola has contaminated his canola fields. Monsanto is suing him for alleged illegal use of GE seed.

But like a sprout bursting through pavement, a global citizen’s movement is taking root and growing fast. As Maude Barlow passionately proclaimed: “(It) is informed by very deep commitment and information and research, and as we did with the MAI, and as we did with the WTO (World Trade Organization), we have found each other and we are building a very powerful international movement that will bring GE down. I am absolutely convinced that we can win this issue.” There’s food for thought. And action.

For more information:
Biotech Action Montreal
Council of Canadians
RAFI: Rural Advancement Foundation
The National Film Board’s new film:
“The Genetic Take-over or Mutant Food”