Ottawa joins agrochemical industry lobby in controversial reform

Organic producers are alarmed that the federal government is withdrawing the obligation to declare new GMOs in favour of the “voluntary transparency” demanded by the industry.

Read the original article in French:

Thomas Gerbet, Radio Canada, May 3, 2023

The National Research Council of Canada (NRC), a Crown corporation, has teamed up with the agrochemical industry lobby to inform the public about genetically modified seeds as the federal government prepares to announce a controversial seed reform on Wednesday. The choice of speakers has been criticised as almost all of them have an interest in the industry.

The coordinator of Vigilance OGM, Thibault Rehn, was startled to discover the names of the speakers at the free public webinars organised by the NRC “in collaboration with CropLife Canada”, the lobby group for makers and distributers of agrochemicals:

·       a representative of Bayer, the world leader in GMOs and pesticides

·       two executives from CropLife, of which Bayer is a member

·       a professor whose research is funded by Bayer and CropLife;

·       a professor who wants to commercialise GM alfalfa in Canada;

·       a professor who works in the field of genetic engineering.

“Of the five panelists, four have a vested interest in regulatory changes,” says Rehn. Furthermore, CropLife is registered as a lobbyist to influence the NRC.

According to him, the federal government is “not neutral” in this matter.

“The government has been so used to working with industry for so many years that it doesn’t even realise it anymore.”
– Thibault Rehn, coordinator of Vigilance OGM

Ottawa is working on a reform that would remove the requirement to declare genetically modified foods and replace it with “voluntary transparency” on the part of industry. This initiative, which has been under consultation for months, is still posted on the federal website, and no one in the Trudeau government has informed us of any intention to back down.

The Quebec government is opposed to this reform, as are the Union des producteurs agricoles and the Conseil de la transformation alimentaire du Québec.

Risk to organic exports

The most worried are organic producers, because genetically engineered plant varieties are banned in organic production. Even animal feed must be GMO-free for meat to be certified organic.

“The consequences are going to be major”, according to Christian Legault, consultant for the Filière biologique du Québec. He points out that 64 countries that buy Canadian products require genetically modified foods to be labelled. This is the case for the European Union and Japan, for example.

“A lack of traceability on genomic editing products could close the door to our exports.”
– Christian Legault, consultant for Filière biologique du Québec

If this reform is adopted, organic producers could unknowingly plant genome-edited seeds or feed these plants to their animals.

“The federal government would break the traceability of these products, which are prohibited in organic production,” says Christian Legault.

Ottawa’s bias
Even though it is officially consulting on this subject after an outcry caused by initial revelations by Radio-Canada, the federal government has sent signals favourable to this regulatory change.

In an email to Radio-Canada, the office of the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, Marie-Claude Bibeau, wrote that she “is committed to supporting the implementation of credible mechanisms that allow organic producers to make informed choices”, but never promised that transparency would be mandatory.

On March 13, 2023, the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, François-Philippe Champagne, released a report on the “Pan-Canadian Genomics Strategy”. It states that “the new transparency initiative recently announced by Health Canada was seen as a positive development, which could serve as a potential model.

François-Philippe Champagne is also the Minister responsible for the National Research Council of Canada, which organised the conferences with industry.

The Minister’s office is satisfied that NRC has acted appropriately in this matter.
NRC says it is free of influence

The National Research Council is a Crown corporation “responsible for all aspects of scientific and industrial research” in Canada. It acts in an advisory capacity to the federal government. One of its values, as stated on its website (New Window), is to value the diversity of its stakeholders.

These seminars are intended to “reach a wider and more diverse potential audience,” NRC says in an email.

“There is no formal agreement or contract between NRC and CropLife, nor is there any financial exchange in connection with this webinar series or any other project,” the Crown corporation assures.

“There is no sharing of privileged information or provision of advice associated with this collaboration.”
– Orian Labrèche, spokesperson for the National Research Council of Canada

“Invited stakeholders come from diverse backgrounds, such as industry and [academia], and are consistent with our values of equity, diversity and inclusion.”

CropLife is registered to lobby NRC

According to the Canadian Lobbyist Registry, the National Research Council is among the institutions targeted by CropLife’s attempts to influence. In the details of the lobbying purpose, it is stated that CropLife is trying to push through “policies and programs that support plant science technologies”.

There are 17 other institutions covered by the lobbying mandate, including the Prime Minister’s Office, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which is carrying out the reform.

A “shameless” approach, according to an expert on lobbying influence

“This case shows a very strong proximity between CropLife and certain authorities of the Canadian government, who are obviously working hand in hand,” believes Stéphanie Yates, a professor in the Department of Social and Public Communication at UQAM whose research focuses on lobbying and influence.

“This “unashamedly” approach seems to me all the more surprising given that the proximity of the lobby to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has already been denounced in the past,” she adds.

“While it is normal for an entity like NRC to have relationships with industry representatives, one would expect a better balance in the presentation of views at conferences such as the one organised here.”
– Stéphanie Yates, a UQAM professor specializing in lobbying and influence

According to Stéphanie Yates, this “situation obviously questions the independence of the NRC from this important lobby, CropLife”.
Spotlight on the speakers

The NRC webinars, developed in collaboration with CropLife, were designed to introduce Canadians to “various aspects of genome editing, including research and development, commercial considerations, regulation and public opinion.

The March 30 lecture was given by CropLife’s Vice President of Communications Erin O’Hara and CropLife’s General Manager of Plant Biotechnology Jennifer Hubert.

Hubert first made news last September when the Canadian Food Inspection Agency presented its reform proposal to several groups. Radio-Canada had discovered that Jennifer Hubert’s name appeared as “author” in the metadata of the Word file used by the government.

On 23 February, Christine Shyu of the multinational company Bayer gave a lecture. Bayer is a world leader in the marketing of GMOs and pesticides, including glyphosate.

GMO seeds allow plants to be grown that are resistant to one or more herbicides, thereby killing other unwanted plants without harming the crop. They contribute to an increase in the use of pesticides.

On 13 April, Stuart Smyth of the University of Saskatchewan, who holds the Chair in Agri-Food Innovation and Sustainability Improvement, spoke about this. Smyth openly states that his research is partly funded by CropLife, Bayer and others.

“CropLife was not involved in any aspect of my presentation, nor was NRC,” Stuart Smyth writes to us by email. “My positions are based on scientific evidence, as are those of CropLife Canada.”

“I agree with CropLife Canada’s positions on gene editing and chemical use because they are based on scientific evidence and, in some cases, their position is based on my research.”
– Stuart Smyth, Professor at the University of Saskatchewan and Chair in Agri-Food Innovation and Sustainability Improvement

On 27 April, it was the turn of Dan Voytas, Director of the Centre for Precision Plant Genomics at the University of Minnesota, to give a seminar. This professor is also co-founder of the company Calyxt which wants to commercialize a gene edited alfalfa in Canada.

The fifth webinar was by Holger Puchta, Director of the Botanical Institute and Chair of Molecular Biology and Plant Biochemistry at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany. He developed the application of the CRISPR scissors on plants and calls for “breaking the rules of genetics”.

Genetic revolution

Unlike GMOs, which have been around for 25 years, genome editing does not insert a foreign gene into a plant to give it a new trait: instead, it modifies the existing genome using the CRISPR genetic scissors or other techniques.

This method is more accurate, faster and cheaper. It allows the development of certain useful qualities and the reduction of certain characteristics considered undesirable.

Some examples of genome editing results :

·       an apple that does not turn brown;

·       a wheat rich in fibre;

·       a cow without horns to avoid injury;

·       a chicken resistant to bird flu.

The industry promises to be transparent

When contacted by Radio-Canada, CropLife told us that it was the National Research Council that asked it to join the webinar series.

“CropLife Canada and its members are scientific experts on the subject, so it was only logical for us to participate in this discussion and information sharing with the entire research community,” says the organization’s CEO, Pierre Petelle.

“This webinar series was also an opportunity to promote best practices in transparency in the field of genetically engineered crops, as the industry has committed to do.”
– Pierre Petelle, CEO of the CropLife lobby

Pierre Petelle says that his industry has “clearly seen the importance of transparency for the Canadian agricultural sector as gene-edited varieties enter the Canadian market.

In 2018, South Korea and Japan stopped importing wheat from Canada because genetically modified plants were found in Alberta. Both countries did not want it.