Antoni's Wire Service

Date: Sat, 27 Feb 1999 19:49:24 -0400 (AST)
From: Antoni Wysocki
To: Antoni's Wire Service
Subject: February round-up on GMOs

Hi folks,

Issues associated with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are attaining increasing political significance internationally. These matters generally receive scant notice in mainstream US and Canadian newsmedia but they are the subject of extensive public debate in many other countries.

The GMO Canadians are perhaps most familiar with is recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH). This substance was recently banned in Canada following Senate hearings which highlighted both the health risks posed by rBGH and the attempts of senior members of Canada's civil service to suppress public notice of these dangers. As a result of the Senate proceedings some discussion of rBGH was generated nationally but the full extent of GMO penetration (and the implications thereof) is poorly understood in Canada.

Typically, governments everywhere are eager to promote GMOs arguing variously that they will be a source of increased market share (this from OECD states) or that they will help feed growing populations (this from Third World nations.) In many instances, however, the citizenry remain unconvinced and popular dissent has now several times forced politicians to rethink their positions.

Many of the most encouraging developments have occurred in India. Last fall KRRS, the Peasants Union of Karnataka state, located and burned GMO crops throughout their region. Now a moratorium on the growing of GMOs has been granted by the Supreme Court. The decision, handed down on February 23/99, arose from a petition put by Vandana Shiva (see 'India's High Court Stops Field Trials of Biotech Cotton').

The United Kingdom has also recently acted to limit the growing of GMOs. The Guardian Weekly reported that, "Environment Minister, Michael Meacher, gave an open-ended assurance that commercial growing would not be allowed in Britain until the Government was convinced it did not damage the environment and wildlife" (Feb. 28/99, 'Government puts GM crops on hold').

This ban, which forbids GMO production with intent to sell, is not as strong as the Indian interdict, which largely prohibits the planting of GMOs even for experimental purposes. Nonetheless it represents considerable progress for the growing anti-GMO lobby in the UK - and a notable tergiversation on the part of 10 Downing Street. Tony Blair has been a vocal and vociferous advocate of GMOs, going so far as to label the Friends of the Earth "tyrants" for campaigning against GMOs, and to criticize Prince Charles for championing organic agriculture.

If there have been victories of late there have also been decided setbacks. Perhaps the most notable is the failure to produce an international Biosafety Protocol in the course of last week's multilateral negotiations in Cartagena, Colombia.

The Protocol, which was conceived as an annex to the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), was intended to ensure the safe transfer, handling, use and disposal of GMOs. Agreement on the Protocol was found amongst the majority of the 174 contracting parties of the CBD but it was scuttled by opposition from a handful of countries. The dissenting few included Canada as well as the US (the latter making itself felt even though it could not vote on the Protocol, having never ratified the CBD).

Uncognizant as the majority of Canadians are of the fact, GMOs are being pushed to the forefront of the global stage. On the one hand the possibility of direct devestation presented by GMOs is very great : it is quite literally impossible to predict the consequences of artificially combining genetic material which could never combine in nature. On the other the White House has evidently identified GMOs - and biotechnology generally - as an efficient means of boosting American multinationals.

Canadians can play a pivotal role in this drama. Indeed, by default, we already are : as in the case of the Biosafety Protocol, mentioned above, the Canadian government tends to act as Washington's faithful sidekick when GMOs are in question. As long as the Canadian public is quiet on the issue Ottawa will have a free hand to assist the Us in its crusade to make the world safe for Monsanto. Yet the rBGH affair shows that it is possible to force the Canadian government to take action on biotechnology problems; and if sufficient dissent against GMOs is aroused within the country Ottawa will have a hard time supporting the US internationally on these issues.

One aspect of getting our own house in order is identifying and dealing with GMO crops being grown in Canada. Joan Russow, Leader of the Green Party of Canada, has told me that she has managed to extract from the federal Department of Agriculture the revelation that there are many such crops across the country. She is presently trying to force the disclosure of the sites' locations; when this information becomes available I will be sure to pass it along.