Regulation and Policy
Genetically engineered (also called genetically modified or GM) crops were first approved in Canada in 1995 without public debate and little public notification. There is no labelling of GM foods on grocery store shelves and there is no consultation with the consumers or farmers before new GM foods are approved. Health Canada does not do its own testing of GM foods but relies on information submitted by the companies that want new products approved.
Canada does not assess any of the possible economic or social impacts of GM crops and animals before they are approved for the market.
The Canadian government does not specifically regulate the new science of genetic engineering (also called genetic modification) but regulates GE foods and crops under a broader category it calls “Novel Foods” and “Plants with Novel Traits” which includes products of GE as well as crops produced by other technologies such as traditional breeding and mutagenesis (where chemicals and gamma-radiation are used to induce mutations in genes).
Ban Outdoor Field Testing of GM Crops
On June 14, 2018, the Canadian government announced a contamination incident with unapproved genetically modified (GM, also called genetically engineered) wheat. Several GM wheat plants were found on a road in Alberta in an isolated contamination case and the government does not know how they got there. No GM wheat was ever approved for growing or eating in Canada, but the GM trait found growing in Alberta was field tested from 1998-2000.
The National Farmers Union is calling for a ban on outdoor testing of GM crops. “The only way to prevent these incidents happening in the future is to ban outdoor testing.” – Terry Boehm, Chair of the National Farmers’ Union Seed Committee
CBAN wrote to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency supporting the call for a ban on field testing and for the disclosure of all previous and current field test locations, and for a change in regulation to require an assessment of potential economic harm before GM crops are released.
The RAGES project (Risk Assessment of Genetically Engineered Organisms in the EU and Switzerland) was carried out between 2016 and 2019 to critically evaluate risk assessment of genetically engineered food plants as performed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and its Swiss counterpart: The EU Parliament has in recent years adopted around 40 resolutions against further approvals for the import of genetically engineered plants. One of the main criticisms was a lack of adequate and sufficient risk assessment. Experts from several member states raised similar criticisms. Nevertheless, the EU Commission gave the green light to all these imports. The results of the international research project RAGES now show that the concerns of EU Parliament are fully justified: There is a substantial contradiction between the legally required safety standards and the reality of the EU approval process.
“The outcome of RAGES shows how risk assessors in the EU and Switzerland are failing to deal with the real and more recent problems. In many cases, they are following a ‘don’t look & don ‘t find’ approach, which does not take into account the limits of knowledge, and does not identify crucially important uncertainties or knowledge gaps. Risk assessors are following a reductionistic, restrictive evidential approach, which largely ignores the complexity of life forms and their interactions with their environments as well as evolutionary principles. Therefore, we conclude that current risk assessment of key safety issues, as performed by EFSA and the Swiss authorities, is failing by design.”
Health Risk Assessments
In June 2018, CBAN wrote to Health Canada asking for information about a “health risk assessment” of GM wheat mentioned in relation to the discovery of unapproved GM wheat plants in Alberta. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) reported that the GM wheat contamination incident was isolated and said: “Health Canada has performed a health risk assessment and concluded this finding does not pose a food safety risk to Canadians.”
We asked if Health Canada’s risk assessment was specific to “this finding” of GM wheat plants in Alberta i.e. specific to the apparent limited scope of this contamination incident/specific to the CFIA conclusion that there is no dietary exposure, or if Health Canada conducted a full scientific evaluation of the safety of this GM wheat for human consumption. Health Canada responded to CBAN that the risk assessment was not a full risk assessment of the GM wheat but only related to this escape incident: “The focus of the health risk assessment is on potential health effects that could occur following limited (acute) exposure only; and is neither a full pre-market safety assessment, nor an authorisation of this wheat variety.”
We also requested an explanation of statements made regarding the risk assessment because they suggested a change in regulation. For example, the CFIA said: “In these crops, previous Health Canada and CFIA safety assessments have demonstrated that this trait does not pose a risk to public health, the health of animals or the environment.” However, Health Canada assessments do not assess the safety of a GM trait outside the specific crop plant it is engineered into. Health Canada responded: “While the Government of Canada’s past experience with other GM crops was used to inform our health risk assessment, the novel food pre-market safety assessment approach implemented under Division 28 remains unchanged.”
Low-Level Presence (LLP)
“Low Level Presence” (LLP) is the proposal to allow our food to be contaminated by a percent of genetically engineered foods that have not yet been approved for safe eating by Health Canada, but that have been approved for human consumption in at least one other country, in accordance with international (Codex) guidelines. Every country currently has “zero-tolerance” for contamination by GM foods that their regulators have not approved as safe but LLP would change this. Click here more details and resources on Low-Level Presence.
Royal Society of Canada’s Expert Panel
The Royal Society of Canada’s Expert Panel on the Future of Food Biotechnology released its highly critical report of Canadian regulation “Elements of Precaution: Recommendations for the Regulation of Food Biotechnology in Canada” in 2001. This report was produced on the request of the departments that regulate GE: Health Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Environment Canada. Virtually none of the recommendations were implemented and the report’s recommendations are still highly relevant.
After initially dismissing the Royal Society of Canada’s Expert Panel recommendations, the government established an “Action Plan” to address them. But our analysis shows that the government only addressed 2 of the 58 recommendations: “Genetically Modified Organisms and precaution: Is the Canadian Government Implementing the Royal Society of Canada’s Recommendations?” by Peter Andrée and Lucy Sharratt, 2004. Read the Executive Summary or view the entire report.
Regulation Around the World
The following is taken from “EU animal feed imports and GMO policy” (2008) by Coordination Paysanne Européenne, Friends of the Earth Europe, Greenpeace.
When a company wants to commercialise a GMO in the US, a safety assessment is only required if the company presents evidence that this is needed. Unsurprisingly, no company has chosen to do this up until now. GMO commercialization in the US therefore occurs under a total absence of health and safety procedures and is complete in an average of 15 months.
The US process for authorising GMOs does not meet international requirements under the United Nations’ Codex Alimentarius, which are considered as the standard by the World Trade Organisation’s trade dispute body. The US is not a signatory to the UN Biosafety Protocol.
The US Department for Agriculture (USDA) is the regulatory agency with primary responsibility for GM crops. Since 2006, three federal courts have also found USDA’s regulation of GM crops to be grossly deficient and not compliant with US environmental laws. In one case, the USDA was found to have violated both the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Acts for allowing several companies to grow GM crops that harbour untested pharmaceuticals in Hawaii without first conducting an environmental assessment.
The EU has a relatively robust regulatory procedure for authorizing GMOs onto the market. This provides the opportunity for a scientific dialogue in an area of risk assessment where there are still major gaps in scientific understanding. For details see GMO Compass funded by the EU.
Argentina has historically been unwilling to authorize GM crops before EU approval and the likely impact of GM crop on exports is a consideration in the approvals process.
China has a more precautionary approach to GMO regulation than the US:
- Certificates for GM commodities are granted for a maximum of five years, and are usually granted for three years or less.
- Once a company has requested approval to commercialize a GMO, the Ministry of Agriculture has up to 270 days to reach a decision.
- China has legislation requiring the return or destruction of food imports that contain unapproved GM materials, incorrectly labelled GM materials, or materials labelled as non-GM which are discovered to contain GM material.
- Beijing is considering legislation that would put in place monitoring of GM foods and require importing companies to bear the cost of recalling foods found to contain illegal GM materials.
For some further details of regulations governing GM in other countries see the Government of Australia’s summary.
People’s Food Policy Calls for GM Phase-Out
The People’s Food Policy Project (2008-2011) mobilized approximately 3,500 people across Canada in a grassroots initiative to develop a food sovereignty policy for Canada. This policy is published as “Resetting the Table: A People’s Food Policy for Canada” with the following recommendations about genetic engineering:
- Democratize science and technology policy and integrate the precautionary principle into all stages of decision-making.
- Genetically-Modified Organisms (GMOs) are living pollution that self-replicate. They cannot be recalled or controlled once they have been released and can spread and interbreed with other organisms, thereby contaminating ecosystems and affecting future generations in unforeseeable and uncontrollable ways. Genetically- Modified (GM) crops threaten agro-biodiversity which is fundamental to global food security, as well as threaten the future of organic food and farming through contamination. Existing GM crops should be phased out and there should be no further approvals of GM crops and animals. A just transition process, including financial and technical support, needs to be established to assist farmers to shift back to non-GM seed sources and to adopt ecological agriculture practices.
- The power over seeds, and potentially breeds, represented by monopoly control has become a mechanism for transferring wealth from farmers and rural communities into the hands of corporations and their shareholders. Canada’s patent legislation should be amended to explicitly disallow the patenting of life, including living organisms and genetic sequences.
- Protect and support the open and free sharing of non- transgenic seeds and breeds as a fundamental practice of agriculture.
- Establish a national ban on “terminator” technology and actively support the existing international ban at the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.
Science and Technology for Food and Agriculture
Challenges: Our food system is based on thousands of years of knowledge and innovation by indigenous peoples, farmers, fishers, and cooks. This rich and diverse knowledge is being marginalized as risky technologies facilitate greater concentration, industrialization and industry control in food and farming. Potential threats (often originally introduced as technological fixes for problems caused by previous technologies) range from the more widely-known platforms of synthetic chemicals and genetic engineering to the emerging applications of nanotechnology, synthetic biology, and climate engineering technologies. These are occurring in the context of a global land grab to feed biomass-intensive “green” technologies, and at the expense of food production and ecosystem health. The parallel erosion of biodiversity and community resilience severely undermines people’s capacity to strengthen local food systems, as well as respond to the increasing challenges posed by climate change.
Ways Forward: Decision-making processes regarding science and technology need to be democratized and guided by precaution and common interest if we are to strengthen our ability to feed ourselves, ensure sustainable livelihoods, and protect biodiversity and healthy ecosystems into the future. ‘Science’ should be acknowledged as including all forms of useful knowledge (codified and tacit) coming from diverse forms of learning and practice including indigenous and farmer knowledge and people’s everyday experience of food. By helping to strengthen and expand ecological agriculture, science and technology can play a particularly positive role in facing present and future challenges in food and agriculture.
Resources on Regulation in Canada
- CBAN’s GMO Inquiry report December 2015: Are GM Crops and Foods Well Regulated?
- Overview: Government use of terms: genetic modification and genetic engineering
- Click here to view various letters from government departments relating to regulation of GMOs, referred to in the report “Are GM Crops and Foods Well Regulated?”
- People’s Food Policy Calls for GM Phase-Out, June 2011 – Click here for a summary of what the People’s Food Policy says on genetic engineering.
- The Royal Society of Canada’s Expert Panel on the Future of Food Biotechnology released its highly critical report of Canadian regulation “Elements of Precaution: Recommendations for the Regulation of Food Biotechnology in Canada” in 2001. This report was produced on the request of the departments that regulate GE: Health Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Environment Canada. Virtually none of the recommendations were implemented and the report’s recommendations are still highly relevant.
- After initially dismissing the Royal Society of Canada’s Expert Panel recommendations, the government established an “Action Plan” to address them. But our analysis shows that the government only addressed 2 of the 58 recommendations: “Genetically Modified Organisms and precaution: Is the Canadian Government Implementing the Royal Society of Canada’s Recommendations?” by Peter Andrée and Lucy Sharratt, 2004. Read the Executive Summary or view the entire report.
- The Real Board of Directors: The Construction of Biotechnology Policy in Canada 1980-2002 by Devlin Kuyek