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Toronto Star, Saturday, March 4, 2006

We need choice on GM foods

By Cameron Smith

Are Canadians doomed to have no choice but to eat food that, at least in part, has been genetically modified (GM)?

The answer probably is yes – unless the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) completely reverses the path that it's on. And that's not something it will do willingly.

It has been approving the use of GM, herbicide-tolerant crops in Canada, saying they're safe to grow and safe to eat – although scientific studies are beginning to question their safety. (For instance, go to the website of the scientific journal Environmental Health Perspectives and search under glyphosate. You'll find opinions pro and con.)

It's of no concern to CFIA if GM-free crops are contaminated through cross-pollination or random seed dispersal from GM crops. The contaminated crops are still safe, CFIA says, adding that its decisions are based only on science and cannot take into account the commercial impact of contamination.

To David Orchard, this creates a nightmare scenario. Orchard is a Saskatchewan farmer who grows organic wheat and alfalfa on 1,093 hectares. This summer, he'll have almost a third of his land in alfalfa.

(Orchard was a leadership candidate for the federal Progressive Conservative party in 2003. He swung his support to Peter MacKay after MacKay signed a pledge never to merge the party with the Canadian Alliance, a pledge MacKay later broke. Orchard now is a Liberal; MacKay now is foreign affairs minister.)

Alfalfa, Orchard explains, is extremely valuable to organic farmers because it not only improves the soil by fixing nitrogen from the air, it's excellent for controlling weeds. It will free a field of weeds by choking them out over three or four years, he says.

Instead of cutting his alfalfa for livestock forage, Orchard harvests the seeds and sells them for germinating into alfalfa sprouts for organic salads.

Once an alfalfa field is contaminated by a GM, herbicide-tolerant variety, Orchard says, neither the alfalfa nor the seeds can be sold as organic, and the field loses its status as certified for growing organic products.

If Monsanto Canada's herbicide-tolerant Roundup Ready alfalfa is introduced into Canada, "it will be disastrous (for organic farmers)," Orchard says, "because it would mean the end of farming organic alfalfa, just as the introduction of GM canola in 1996 has all but wiped out Canadian organic canola production."

The CFIA has already declared Roundup Ready alfalfa safe for release into the environment, which allows U.S. farmers to sell GM alfalfa as livestock forage in Canada. So far, Monsanto has not applied for approval to sell seeds for growing Roundup Ready alfalfa in Canada.

To address the problem of contamination, CFIA is planning to publish a proposed regulation next month that will initiate federal standards for organic production.

The proposal will suggest that if organic fields are accidentally contaminated with GM plants, the fields can retain their status as organically certified. However, the proposal will say nothing about whether crops grown on these fields will be considered organic under federal regulations. That will come later.

There will be 90 days for public comment on the proposal and then CFIA will open discussions on what percentage of crop contamination will be acceptable under the regulations.

If such a standard is set, it will be like saying all organic food can be a little bit pregnant with GM contamination. It will eventually mean the end of GM-free food in Canada and the end of choice for consumers.


Cameron Smith can be reached at camsmith@kingston.net.


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