Below is unofficial translation of the article in French “Tiger Team” : quand fonctionnaires et lobbyistes coopèrent dans l’ombre – please note that quotes from documents were translated from English to French and then back to English so the wording of the original documents may differ slightly. This article prompted a response from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, resulting in the follow-up Radio-Canada article on September 27, 2023 “The Canadian Government Insists it is Independent of the Agrochemical Lobby.“
“Tiger team”: when civil servants and lobbyists cooperate in the shadows
Nearly 700 pages of emails reveal how they worked together to prepare a controversial reform on GMOs.
Working hand in glove with federal officials, the CropLife agrochemical lobby (which represents companies such as Bayer, steered regulatory changes, reveal documents obtained by Radio-Canada. Their association even had a name: the “Tiger Team.”
In addition to co-developing a reform behind closed doors, they defined concepts together and developed communication strategies. All this was done months before a public consultation was held on the subject. The outcome of this consultation was exactly what the industry wanted.
“We would like to thank CropLife Canada for its active involvement on this issue. The open and constructive engagement between the sector and the Government of Canada is a good model of collaboration.” – Internal memo to the Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Chris Forbes, in preparation for a meeting with CropLife and the Canada Grains Council on November 19, 2021.
We showed these documents to NGOs that took part in the public consultations. They are denouncing an injustice. As for specialists in influencer marketing, they see very effective lobbying, but an “unacceptable” closeness to civil servants.
Before going behind the scenes of the Tiger Team, thanks to the emails we obtained through the Access to Information Act, we need to understand the context of this alliance of industrial interests and the public service.
Over a period of several years, the Canadian government had been preparing a reform that ended the obligation to disclose that certain plants have been genetically modified, replacing it with “voluntary transparency” on the part of the industry. These new GMOs are also exempted from certain controls.
Like environmental groups, the Quebec government opposed this reform, as did the Union des producteurs agricoles, the Conseil de la transformation alimentaire du Québec and Filière biologique, which were concerned about product traceability.
But the public consultation held in the spring of 2021 did not address their concerns. In May 2023, Ottawa confirmed that industry transparency would be voluntary and not mandatory.
“Based on the options developed and recommended by the Tiger Team, made up of industry and government representatives […], Health Canada published its updated regulatory guide on May 18, 2022.” – Internal notes in preparation for a meeting between the Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Chris Forbes, and the President of CropLife on November 2, 2022.
Behind the scenes of the Tiger Team
On August 13, 2021, the Director of Regulatory Policy Coordination at Agriculture Canada wrote to nine industry representatives and some fifteen officials from his department and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
He referred to a meeting the previous day on the subject of “regulatory experimentation,” noting that “new, simpler approaches” were proposed, “including co-development.”
He defined the Tiger Team model as “government and trusted stakeholders working together.” But many stakeholders were missing from the table. In fact, only the industry got to participate in the reform.
According to the emails, the Tiger Team consisted of two lobby groups (CropLife and the Canada Grains Council), as well as four officials from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), three from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and one from Health Canada.
The email exchanges show that CropLife bombarded the officials with studies, surveys, research reports, analyses and invitations to conferences. The lobby group constantly asserted that genome-editing innovations were risk free.
Tiger Team rejected Health Canada proposal to mandate transparency
A discussion paper dated April 26, 2019 stated that Health Canada had initially proposed “a mandatory notification policy” for genome-edited products, but the proposal was “not supported,” wrote CropLife.
On May 21, 2019, the lobby group exchanged a discussion paper with 18 officials about the reform. CropLife’s comments can be read there, and we can see that it proposed several deletions and amendments.
These new elements shed further light on Radio-Canada’s revelations last year that a CFIA Microsoft Word file presenting the reform had initially been created by a CropLife director.
A joint communications strategy
The Tiger Team met several times in hotels for “Pros & Cons” scenarios where both parties could “discuss a series of proposals developed by the industry.”
In a 2019 email, the CropLife lead on the Tiger Team sent two senior officials a message with the subject line “communications strategies for genome editing.”
“Attached and below are some new resources that the industry is currently looking to leverage in Canada to raise public awareness of genome editing,” writes the lobbyist. He suggested that they be sent to the various communications teams.
The senior CFIA official immediately replied that she would “distribute it internally” and suggested finding a moment to talk about it at the next meeting: “We could think about how to approach the issue of communication.”
CropLife sought to influence the definitions of concepts
On May 15, 2020, CropLife wrote to two officials at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, including the one in charge of regulation: “As we have discussed, I am pleased to share with you some of the definitions we have developed.”
The lobbyist then asks them not to mention that these definitions of genome editing come from CropLife. “Feel free to integrate them into your own definitions and share them as such,” he wrote.
Lobbying experts impressed
Marc-André Gagnon, professor of public policy at Carleton University, was concerned that the industry had a hand in drafting the documents.
“This is ethically unacceptable.” – Marc-André Gagnon, Professor of Public Policy at Carleton University
The researcher is interested in the shadow strategies of pharmaceutical and agrochemical corporations. He is astounded that government definitions were developed in partnership with the industry. “We have independent academics working on these issues,” he says.
“The impression you get from reading the documents is that the industry is almost driving the government’s positions,” says Stéphanie Yates, a professor in the department of social and public communication at UQAM, whose research focuses on lobbying and influence.
She points out that there is nothing illegal about all this; it is simply proof of highly effective lobbying.
“What may come as a surprise is their close relationship, which could call into question the critical distance that members of government should have from industry representatives.” – Stéphanie Yates, professor at UQAM and specialist in lobbying.
According to the professor, this is a case of “regulatory capture,” meaning that “private interests capture the workings of government for their own benefit. The aim is to develop such a close relationship with members of government that they adopt the industry’s way of thinking.”
An “imbalance of power” according to NGOs that took part in the public consultations
After reading the documents, Thibault Rehn, coordinator of Vigilance OGM, has the feeling that groups like his are “just being included to put on a good show” in a public consultation, but that the dice seem to be loaded.
“There are two classes of stakeholder … We don’t have much of a voice.” – Thibault Rehn, coordinator of Vigilance OGM
“It shows an imbalance of power,” says Lucy Sharratt, Coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network. “CropLife has enough money for this type of interaction with the government; they have the employees, and they have the time to access the information.”
Lucy Sharratt recalls that for the public consultation, “we provided the government with detailed comments, we spent a lot of time on it.” She fears that revelations like this will discourage the public from taking part in future public consultations.
“Was the public consultation genuine or was it a public relations exercise?” – Lucy Sharratt, Coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network
We sent Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency requests for an interview on Thursday. They referred us to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, but the latter eventually told us to contact the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, so we have not yet been able to get any answers to our questions.
However, CropLife president Pierre Petelle was available to respond.
“The task force was formed to develop and examine options and innovative thinking for decision-making based on risk assessment, which will promote innovation and competitiveness for all applicants seeking approval, while ensuring health and safety,” he wrote in an email to Radio-Canada.
“CropLife Canada, along with several other groups representing the entire agricultural value chain, participated in this ‘task force’ to provide technical advice for the Government of Canada to consider when developing options for updating policy directions in preparation for public consultation.”
“CropLife Canada supports science-based approaches to regulating plant breeding innovations, so that farmers have the tools they need to sustainably produce safe, high-quality and affordable food.” – Pierre Petelle, President of CropLife Canada.
In an email dated August 13, 2021, a director of the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada suggested that the Tiger Team apply the same model of cooperation used for genome editing “to another regulatory modernization effort.”
The senior civil servant then identified the person who would be given this mandate and appointed a director of… CropLife.