With the release of its National Food Policy on April 26, the federal Liberal Party is hoping to make agriculture a key election issue. Courting the rural vote with the “Rural Canada Matters” policy document, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff announced, after a tour of a Holland Marsh farm in Ontario, “Our farmers produce the healthiest, safest, highest-quality foods in the world – and we’ll help them get more of their products on our tables with Canada’s first comprehensive National Food Policy.”
That proposed policy includes some laudable aspects, including a four-year $80 million program to support a Farmers’ Market Development Program, and programs to reduce economic risk for farmers. But the Liberal Party document is strangely silent on one of the most crucial agricultural issues. In fact, just days before calling for a national food policy to assist local farmers, Ignatieff actually left Parliament immediately before a crucial vote on a Bill that would have far-reaching effects on agriculture and food policy in this country for years to come.
We’re talking about Bill C-474, a Private Member’s Bill that would for the first time require the government to look at the economic impact of genetically-modified (GM) seeds on Canadian farmers. An immediate issue is the possible introduction of GM alfalfa into Canada, a move that critics say would “decimate” organic farming in this country.
The Canadian government has already approved Monsanto’s GM alfalfa, but Monsanto has not yet applied for “variety registration” -- the next step before the crop can be commercially grown in Canada. That step could happen as soon as mid-summer this year.
A genetically-modified plant includes a gene from another organism in order to introduce a specific novel characteristic. Monsanto’s GM alfalfa is engineered to withstand applications of its Roundup herbicide, a chemical weed-killer.
Alfalfa is widely used as a cover crop and as a high-protein livestock feed. Patrick Connor, a Toronto board member of the Non-GMO Project, told me, “If genetically-modified alfalfa is introduced into Canada, it would decimate organic farmers” by easily cross-pollinating and contaminating their alfalfa crops. If their alfalfa is contaminated, organic farms could lose their source of organic livestock feed and markets for organic meat and dairy.
Alfalfa is also a perennial, meaning that genetically-modified plants could live on for years, spreading their pollen far and wide.
Flax farmers in Canada are now paying a heavy price because of GM contamination. Late last year, Canadian flax exports were discovered to be contaminated with a GM flax that is not approved in Europe, so Canadian farmers lost their flax export markets in 35 countries.
Lucy Sharratt, Coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, told me in a recent phone interview that Canadians concerned about GM alfalfa should “immediately voice their support for Bill C-474,” the Private Member’s Bill introduced in Parliament by Alex Atamanenko, the NDP’s Agriculture Critic and MP for B.C. Southern Interior. The Bill would require that “an analysis of potential harm to export markets be conducted before the sale of any new genetically engineered seed is permitted” in Canada.
That simple, one-line Bill, introduced on March 17, had the multinational biotechnology industry lobbying fiercely against it for weeks.
“The biotechnology lobby phoned MPs to try to stop this going to committee,” says Sharratt. But on April 15, Bill C-474 passed second reading in the House of Commons and moved to the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food for further study and possible amendments, before it will once again and finally be voted on in the House.
“This is the first time a bill to change the rules on GMOs [genetically-modified organisms] has passed second reading,” says Sharratt. It’s an historical victory in itself that came about because the NDP, the Bloc Québecois, and most of the Liberal MPs voted in favour of the Bill, while the Conservatives voted against it. The vote was close (153 to 134) and, says Sharratt, Liberal leader “Michael Ignatieff left just before the vote and didn’t take a stand on the issue.” (Readers can find out how their MP voted on the issue, and can also send an email to their MP, by consulting www.cban.ca/474)
The NDP’s Alex Atamanenko told the press after the historic vote: “Despite intense lobbying efforts by the biotech industry and the Conservative government to nip this bill in the bud, the Opposition parties voted instead to protect the economic interests of farmers. I couldn’t be happier that Parliament has made this historic decision.”
But, says Sharratt, “There’s no guarantee that the Liberals will support Bill-C474 again,” so she is urging Canadians to contact both Ignatieff and their own MPs to voice citizen support for the Bill, especially before the middle of June when Agriculture Committee Hearings begin.
“The tide is turning,” says Sharratt, and that’s “partly because of disaster. The flax issue is just huge.”
The Flax Disaster
Back in 2001, a genetically-modified (GM) flax seed developed at the University of Saskatchewan, called Triffid (after a 1950s sci-fi novel and film titled Day of the Triffids), was taken off the market because farmers feared that the variety would contaminate other flax produced in Canada. At least 200,000 bushels of Triffid flax seed worth $2.5 million was rounded up from farms across the Prairies and crushed, then de-registered by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, making the seed illegal.
The seed was never grown commercially, but about 40 farmers were multiplying the 200,000 bushels of seed for future marketing and use. They were forced to clean out their flax bins and ship the seed to Canamera Foods in Manitoba for crushing.
Almost a decade later, however, in September 2009, traces of Triffid flax were inexplicably found in European shipments of Canadian flax. A $320 million industry began to tank as 15,000 flax farmers across Canada watched 70% of their export market disappear. By October, 35 countries had reported contamination from GM flax in Canadian exports, and a vast recall of cereals, bakery products, bakery mixtures, and nut/seed products had to be undertaken in those countries. Europe and Japan, then Brazil closed their doors to Canadian flax. By the end of 2009, some 930,000 tonnes of Canadian flax were left unsold.
It’s a huge mystery as to just how the genetically-modified flax seeds resurfaced after a decade to contaminate the exports. As the Globe and Mail reported (Oct. 27, 2009), “Now there is anger on the prairies that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency unnecessarily put farm incomes at risk by approving the flax in the first place.”
Canadian flax farmers have had to pay for costly testing (both in Canada and in Europe) and cleanup, and grain companies tried but failed to force farmers to buy certified seed instead of relying on their own saved seed. It was out of this situation that Bill C-474 emerged.
As MP Atmanenko wrote in a letter to Western Producer (Jan. 27, 2010): “The recent loss of our flax markets due to contamination by GM Triffid makes it pretty clear that a GM technology that is not accepted by our major export markets has no economic value whatsoever... There is nothing in our current regulations to prevent the commercialization of GM seeds that we know would lead to economic disaster.”
The U.S. Situation
Since 2007, there has been an injunction against the planting of GM alfalfa in the U.S because a federal court ruled that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) did not do a thorough enough study of the impacts that Monsanto’s GM alfalfa would have on human health, the environment, and society. The court ordered the USDA to draft another Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which was released for comments early in December 2009.
In its brief to the USDA, Canada’s National Farmers’ Union argued that “the likelihood of contamination [by GM alfalfa] is a virtual certainty... While USDA claims to support the ‘co-existence’ of [genetically-modified] crops with conventional and organic crops, the lack of enforceable protections render the concept of ‘co-existence’ meaningless.”
In fact, according to the UK’s GM Watch (a non-profit organization that monitors genetic modification developments), in 2007 alone there were 39 new instances of genetically-modified contamination of crops in 23 countries, with 216 incidents reported between 2005 and 2009.
Warning that “organic agriculture will be destroyed in many areas,” the National Farmers’ Union stated that conventional alfalfa producers in Canada, and likely also in the U.S., feel that genetically-modified alfalfa “is a largely unnecessary and harmful product.”
Others have also questioned the need for herbicide-resistant alfalfa, since conventional farmers rarely use herbicide when growing alfalfa.
But, Lucy Sharratt explains, GM contamination of farmers’ alfalfa “would be useful to Monsanto because it forces open international markets and it forces farmers to abandon their own seed” because of the threat of a lawsuit by Monsanto. A feature article in Vanity Fair (May 2008) revealed that, by 2007, Monsanto had filed 112 law-suits against farmers and seed dealers in 27 U.S. states. According to the magazine, Monsanto ”relies on a shadowy army of private investigators and agents” to “strike fear” into farming communities, making the company “detested in farm country, even by those who buy its products.”
By April, more than 100 Canadian agricultural and consumer groups had signed a statement against GM alfalfa.
If the USDA decides in favour of GM alfalfa, the current court injunction against planting in the U.S. will be lifted, likely this summer. Monsanto has also challenged the injunction in the U.S. Supreme Court, with the case scheduled for opening arguments soon, and a decision expected in June at the earliest. Should the Supreme Court find in Monsanto’s favour, it could lift the injunction pending the conclusion of the EIS.
The judge hearing the case is Clarence Thomas, a former attorney for Monsanto from 1976 to 1979, who has previously ruled in favour of the biotechnology industry.
The Canadian Opportunity
Sharratt says that, if plantings of GM alfalfa are allowed in the U.S. this summer, they “will likely be followed by an attempt to commercialize the seeds in Canada.”
Monsanto “rules the game in the U.S.,” says Sharratt, and “almost rules the game here.” But Canada now has the opportunity to make a difference with Bill C-474. “This bill could also make quite a statement internationally,” Sharratt tells me. “We can’t allow Monsanto’s GM seeds to destroy the livelihoods of farmers and jeopardize the future of organic farming.”
The Harper government’s new national policy for agriculture, “Growing Forward,” remains largely committed to industrial-scale agriculture and genetic-engineering, with an emphasis on food production for export.
The Liberal Party, in releasing its call for a National Food Policy, claims that it’s offering Canadians “a clear choice” that is decidedly different from the Conservatives’ approach.
But the Liberals could really make that difference clear by supporting Bill C-474 when it comes to third reading in Parliament. According to Sharratt, Michael Ignatieff and all our MPs need to hear during the first two weeks of June from Canadians who care about our food sovereignty and organic farming.
As the NDP’s Atamanenko puts it, “For the first time, Parliament has a chance to seriously consider a regulatory mechanism that will ensure farmers are never again faced with rejection in our export markets because we allow the introduction of GM technologies that they have not approved.”
(Joyce Nelson is a freelance writer/researcher and the author of five books.)