Canadians not happy with GMOs (30/1/2008)

EXTRACT: 'Canadians express reticence' about GM animals, fish and agricultural products, with a greater proportion surveyed believing this development will make life worse rather than better, according to a 2006 Decima Research poll for the federal government.


By Peter O'Neil, Europe Correspondent, Canwest News Service Vancouver (B.C., Canada) January 20 2008

PARIS -- Canada, like the U.S., is holding its fire in an ongoing trade battle with Europe that underscores dramatically different attitudes on each continent to the controversy over genetically- modified food.

Canada, the U.S. and Argentina have the right to impose sanctions after the European Union missed a recent deadline imposed by the World Trade Organization to end import restrictions on many GM products.

'Canada believes that constructive progress is being made and has therefore authorized the extension of the reasonable period of time -- until February 11, 2008 -- to allow the (EU) additional time to fully comply with the (WTO) panel's recommendations,' Michael O'Shaughnessy, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, told Canwest News Service in an e-mail.

U.S. trade spokeswoman Gretchen Hamel said last week that the EU would be given the chance to show 'meaningful progress,' though she was critical in particular of France, which like several EU-member countries has taken an even tougher stand than the EU itself.

But a deep chasm between European and North American approaches to the GM debate, as well as regulation of health and the environment, suggesting a solution may not arrive soon.

While polls in the U.S. and Canada consistently reveal public unease about the health and safety of GM foods, the issue doesn't come close to approaching the intensity exhibited in European countries.

Feelings are most profound in France, where the country's obsession with fine dining -- and access to fresh locally grown meat and produce - gives the agriculture sector considerable clout and public prominence.

Police in southern France used tear gas last summer to prevent pro-GM farmers from attacking anti-GM activists, led by 2007 presidential candidate Jose Bove, who had been trampling or cutting down GM crops.

The clash occurred after one pro-GM farmer took his life after finding out Bove's group planned a destructive 'picnic' in his field.

Another example of the anti-GM movement's strength was the announcement this month by right-wing French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who took the side of GM critics in a move that ended a hunger strike by Bove, the mustachioed, pipe-smoking anti-globalization radical who was jailed in 1999 for trashing a McDonald's restaurant.

Sarkozy, later accused of capitulating to an extremist for reasons of political expediency, endorsed the continued banning of a strain of genetically modified corn made by the American agricultural giant Monsanto.

'With the principle of precaution at stake, I am making a major political decision to carry our country to the forefront of the debate on the environment,' Sarkozy said.

The Canadian debate has been far less passionate, even though federal government polling regularly records public anxiety about GM food.

'Canadians express reticence' about GM animals, fish and agricultural products, with a greater proportion surveyed believing this development will make life worse rather than better, according to a 2006 Decima Research poll for the federal government. The poll of 2,000 Canadians had an error margin of 2.2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Canadian MP Alex Atamanenko, a New Democrat from B.C.'s Southern Interior riding, has toiled mostly in obscurity attempting to stir interest in Parliament. He said the issue concerns Canadians of all political stripes and should be given greater attention.

But he bemoaned the lack of adherence to the federal government's 'voluntary' approach to GM labelling. He said that has meant Canadians are largely unaware of the more than 30,000 processed foods available on grocery store shelves that contain GM organisms.

He said politicians throughout Europe, and the 'peoples' movement' in France, are pushing the issue far more aggressively than green-oriented politicians and activists in Canada.

'There are a lot of parliamentarians that aren't aware of this,' Atamanenko said.

'We have tremendous lobbying pressure by the biotech companies, it's possible here that the rapport between the industry and government is closer, they've been able to bend the ears of our government over the years, to convince them this is good.'

Michael Hart, a former senior federal trade negotiator who teaches international trade at Ottawa's Carleton University, said Europe takes a 'precautionary' approach to the regulation of GM foods which requires proof that a product isn't dangerous. In Canada and the U.S., regulators require proof that it is dangerous.

'Logically you cannot prove that something is not dangerous,' Hart said Friday.

'The example I use with my students is, when they fly from Ottawa to Toronto, do they ask the ticket agent, 'can you guarantee that this plane will arrive safely in Toronto?' 'Well, no we can't.' 'Can you tell us if it is safe?' 'Yes it is safe. The chances of it not arriving in Toronto are extremely small,'' he said.

'That's what the so-called precautionary principle is all about.'

Europe's tougher regulatory regime for GM products in turn relates at least partly to a stronger obsession with the environment and greater mistrust of government regulators, a sentiment historians have linked to various oil spills, contaminations of the food supply, and especially the 1986 explosion at the Chornobyl nuclear station in the Ukraine that sent radiation across many parts of Europe, including Wales and Sweden.

These incidents have reminded Europeans, who live on a land mass more than twice as small as Canada's, that the continent has to act collectively to save itself.

That sentiment in turn has empowered the European Union in Brussels. The EU's parliament, like most European national parliaments, uses a 'proportional representation' electoral system that makes it far easier for Green Party activists and other environmentalists to get elected than their counterparts in Canada and the U.S.

'The EU by its very nature and rationale has become a prime focus as a potential initiator for environmental action within Europe,' according to the 2001 book The Greening of the European Union.

Among the pressures driving EU decision-makers is 'the emergence of a new 'green' consumer culture, most recently personified by the campaigns against genetically modified food,' the book's authors argued.

Copyright Canwest News Service 2008

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