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Questions on GM products / labelling

31 August 1999

Discussion from the mai-not list

John Mutambirwa wrote:

There is a little something that occasions me much confusion. With such enormous investment having been made in gm organisms and processed products therefrom, how is it going to be possible to adequately police the distribution of especially the processed products through either the irregular or "legal" market? With or without labelling.

Dear John et al.,

This is a very good question, to which there are several valid answers.

First of all, the companies which develop the genetically-modified strains are the ones who distribute it, and they can make their own rules for doing so. For example, farmers who want to grow "Roundup Ready" corn must buy it from Monsanto, which demands that they sign a contract under which they agree (among other things): - not to save seed for the next year's crop - not to lend or otherwise share the seed with their neighbours - to allow Monsanto's inspectors to examine their fields and Monsanto's auditors to look over their books and records so as to ensure that they are not growing more of the crop than would be produced by the seed they bought. In other words, if a farmer decides to grow that GM crop, he must first agree to give up some of his rights and freedoms; otherwise, no sale.

Secondly, the campanies which develop GM crops are also prime movers in changes to existing laws on intellectual property rights --they want more inspection privileges, higher penalties for violations, etc. to protect their investment-- and some governments are all too willing to succumb to such pressures. Meanwhile, the companies in question are also attempting to claim the "right" to inspect the fields of other farmers --the ones who didn't buy the GM seed and sign the contract-- so they can sue them for patent infringement if any GM plants are found on their property. At least one such case is pending in Saskatchewan, against a farmer who says he did not plant GM crops and did not give his permission for the "Monsanto macoutes" [my term, not his!] to trespass in his fields. The company claims they found their patented GM material in his fields which means he must have pirated their seed, and that this could not be because of cross-pollination or GM seeds blown off passing trucks. We shall see what happens in court over this eventually.

Third, since some consumer resistance and scientific concern over GM produce was anticipated, the promoters of GM crops pressed hard not only to avoid the labelling of GM foods but also to prohibit growers of non-GM crops to label their produce as non-GM. This issue is still up in the air in many countries but we can expect to hear more complaints from major agribusinesses about how labelling would only confuse consumers and unfairly restrain their trade.

Strictly speaking, once the crop leaves the field for the processing plant, the owner of the patented GM seed stocks no longer cares about who gets the harvest and what they make it into [as long as lots of it gets sold, of course] so policing of the resulting consumer products is not an issue. However, it is obviously in their interest to promote volume sales of that crop, which requires more lobbying in the appropriate places.

To ensure good sales in Canada, for example (not only of the GM seed but also of the millions of dollars' worth of pesticides the seed is engineered to tolerate), it suffices to persuade Health Canada that there is no need to test GM products for long-term safety because they are substantially the same as the non-GM products, and to persuade the rest of the government that GM crops will produce higher yields which will mean more export sales [cleverly omitting to mention that those higher yields are theoretical and that if they do occur, higher supply inevitably leads to falling prices] and that there is no need for study of environmental impacts. Add that to the simple expedient of not telling consumers what foods are GM or that they are not being tested [except by the companies which are pushing them, of course] or that virtually the entire Canadian population are being used as guinea-pigs in an immense, uncontrolled study the results of which will emerge 10 or 20 years down the road.

To pressure countries whose more stringent safety standards might reject GM crops into buying them anyway, certain industries made a point of mixing GM and non-GM crops in the storage-bins so that they could claim it is impossible to sell those countries only non-GM foodstuffs. This also ensured that the processed foods containing those crops could not be guaranteed to be free of GM contents, and of course a country's prohibition of importing all of the food in question could be challenged on grounds that it is an unfair restraint of trade since not all of the food being prohibited is actually GM.

Of course, if you're now wondering how it would be possible for a country which wished to do so to avoid the importation of processed foods with GM content, the answer is that it becomes very difficult. Some European countries are trying to find ways but they cannot expect much co-operation from the agribusiness and can't expect ANY AT ALL from the governments of the United States and Canada--which are busily working to strike down any and all forms of control over the entry of GM foods into the European Union by means of new MAI-like trade agreements. Thus far, it looks as if they have already succeeded in reversing the food approval procedure in North America: once upon a time, foods were tested for safety and were allowed to be sold when they passed; now, unless it can be scientifically proven in advance that GM foods are unsafe--presumably by consumers or independently wealthy scientists, since the sellers obviously won't fund such studies and the government no longer considers itself responsible for doing so--it's "full steam ahead". In fact, both the U.S. and Canadian governments are adamant that the European countries must change their laws so as to be unable to prohibit the import of such foods unless "somebody" first provides the Codex Alimentarius commission with scientific proof of actual (not just potential) danger --which, naturally, cannot be done until a sufficient number of human subjects have been allowed to sicken or die over a number of years.

For the moment, then, all I can say is that the burden is being very efficiently shifted to the individual consumer to police what he or she eats. In Canada, that means you had better buy ALL your food from a certified organic source and that you should probably avoid all products containing: corn, soy, wheat, potatoes, tomatoes, canola oil or unspecified vegetable oil...and imported fruits, since you can't tell which are GM. In short, give up on restaurants, prepackaged foods, and staple grains. For what it's worth, they haven't got around to tampering with kamut, quinoa or millet as far as I know, Asian or Indian rice is non-GM, and you can probably assume that any fruits or vegetables not used by the major food processing business are not GM.

It's all a bit hard on us vegetarians, but I'm eating more rice and eggplant these days...



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