December 8, 2021, Halifax – Consumer, environmental, and farmer groups across Canada are denouncing new regulatory changes expected to be published today by Health Canada that will allow private corporations to release onto the market many new genetically engineered (genetically modified or GM) foods without any government oversight. The groups, represented by the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) and the Quebec network Vigilance OGM (GM Watch), are alarmed that the new guidance relies on corporate product safety determinations and limits the government to simply asking corporations to provide “voluntary transparency”. Last month, 105 organizations wrote to Health Minister Jean Yves Duclos expressing their concerns about the removal of government oversight and transparency, and the impact of such changes on food safety and the principle of public regulation over private industry. (1) The groups are calling for the changes to be paused pending further review.
“Health Canada needs to provide full transparency to the public through regulation and not negotiate with private corporations to voluntarily inform Canadians about new unregulated genetically modified foods,” said Lucy Sharratt of CBAN.
Under new regulatory guidance, Health Canada is removing its authority to regulate many new genetically modified foods developed with gene editing techniques (2), and leave safety assessments to product developers instead. (3) Without this authority, Health Canada will not know about unregulated GM foods that come to market. Health Canada is therefore proposing a “Voluntary Transparency Initiative” to encourage companies to provide voluntary notification to Health Canada of unregulated GM foods.
“The bottom line is that companies are accountable to their shareholders, not Canadians. This shift to corporate self-regulation is unacceptable,” said Thibault Rehn of Vigilance OGM (GM Watch), “How can Health Canada believe that all companies will provide public information on controversial GM products when they don’t have to? These same companies have already spent over twenty years lobbying against mandatory GM food labelling in grocery stores and have never used the voluntary GMO labelling standard. Why would we expect companies to voluntarily tell the government and public about these new GM foods?”
Health Canada held a public consultation on their proposals March 25 – May 24, 2021, (4) but the department did not widely publicize this consultation and has since spent months in talks with industry associations about the proposals. (5)
On June 28, 2021, Health Canada wrote to the biotechnology and pesticide industry lobby group CropLife Canada, the amalgamated seed industry association called Seeds Canada, and the Canada Grains Council, to ask these industry associations to provide a commitment that their members would participate in the proposed “Voluntary Transparency Initiative”.
“Transparency for the public cannot be secured through an industry promise. Health Canada clearly doesn’t understand what transparency means,” said Sharratt, “This lack of transparency is the result of a lack of regulation which jeopardizes food safety. Without regulation, there can be no public trust.”
“The Minister cannot let Health Canada hand safety assessments over to product developers and trade away transparency. The Minister of Health has a responsibility to provide ensure safety and provide transparency to Canadians,” said Sharratt.
For more information: Lucy Sharratt, Canadian Biotechnology Action Network 902 209 4906 firstname.lastname@example.org; Thibault Rehn, Vigilance OGM (GM Watch), 514-582-1674, email@example.com
(1) The letter to the Ministers signed by 105 groups was sent on November 17, 2021, and is posted at http://www.cban.ca/NoExemptions/OpenLetterSigned
(2) The new genetic engineering techniques of gene editing (also called genome editing) are described in CBAN’s factsheet and report posted at https://www.cban.ca/GenomeEditingReport
(3) Health Canada’s proposals are described in a summary from CBAN posted at https://cban.ca/wp-content/uploads/CBAN-Summary-of-Proposals-Nov-2021-3.pdf and more information is posted at https://cban.ca/take-action/no-exemptions/
(4) CBAN submitted detailed comments to Health Canada in the consultation, posted at https://cban.ca/wp-content/uploads/CBAN-comments-to-HC-regulatory-guidance-May-11-2021.pdf
(5) Before and after the public consultation, Health Canada logged 21 meetings with industry and 3 with civil society groups (CBAN), however all the meetings in the “Post Consultation Stakeholder Engagement” were with industry associations and corporations. The meetings are logged here https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/food-nutrition/genetically-modified-foods-other-novel-foods/transparency-privacy-regulatory-guidance-novel-foods/meetings-correspondence.html
The Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) brings together 15 groups to research, monitor and raise awareness about issues relating to genetic engineering in food and farming. CBAN members include farmer associations, environmental and social justice organizations, and regional coalitions of grassroots groups. CBAN is a project of MakeWay’s shared platform.