Witness under fire | Federal government is proposing world’s first low level presence policy
Some familiar political battles over genetically modified organisms erupted at the House of Commons agriculture committee last week when anti-GMO campaigner Lucy Sharratt found herself under Conservative attack.
Alberta Conservative MP Blake Richards noted that her Canadian Biotechnology Action Network is a “project” of Vancouver-based environmental umbrella group Tides Canada.
The Conservatives consider Tides Canada a radical environmental organization that takes tens of millions of dollars in American funding to fight against Canadian interests.
Richards peppered her with hostile questions and statements, then cut Sharratt off when she tried to answer.
Liberal Frank Valeriote accused him of “badgering” a witness who had been invited to appear. New Democrat Malcolm Allen called it a “blustering diatribe.”
In a later interview, Sharratt said partisan instincts rather than the policy issue at stake had captured the committee debate.
“This is a serious issue that needs debate and if the agriculture committee can’t provide space for that debate, it just adds to the polarization,” she said.
The blow-up came as the committee considered an Agriculture Canada proposal that the country become the first in the world to establish a low-level presence policy for accepting imports of commodities containing inadvertent trace amounts of GMO traits unapproved in Canada but approved in originating country whose food safety system Canada recognizes.
The government argument for the proposal, supported by most grain and commodity sectors, is that guaranteeing zero adventitious presence is impossible.
And since Canada has been leading an international campaign to convince importers of Canadian commodities to implement LLP rules so multimillion-dollar export cargoes are not turned away because of trace GMO findings, it argues Canada should set an example.
At present around the world, including in Canada, zero tolerance for unapproved GM traces is the rule.
At the committee, Saskatchewan farmer and Grain Growers of Canada representative Franck Groeneweg presented prepared remarks that supported the government proposal.
“To ensure our products can continue to be exported, it is imperative that countries around the world adopt a low-level presence policy,” he said.
Gordon Harrison, president of the Canadian National Millers’ Association and representing the Canada Grains Council, said the CGC supports the proposal but considers the suggested trigger levels of between 0.1 and 0.2 percent too low and the trigger should be above 0.2 percent content.
Sharratt took the opposite view in her presentation, arguing that it would expose Canadian consumers to untested risks and undermine Canada’s claim to have a “science-based” food safety system,
“The adoption of the LLP policy would establish Canada as the first country in the world to accept imports contaminated with levels of GM foods that have not been approved by our own regulatory agencies,” she argued.
GMO supporters bristle when GM trace amounts are called “contamination.”
Ontario Conservative MP Pierre Lemieux argued that zero tolerance is impractical in the current world of agriculture where seeds spread in the wind and rail cars or cargo ships may carry GM crops on one trip and a non-GM cargo on its return trip, making minute amounts of seed mixing highly likely.
He said existing equipment often is not sophisticated enough to detect trace amounts.
Sharratt would not concede that those arguments justify changing the zero presence policy.
The government proposal now is subject to a public comment period. No deadline has been announced for a final decision.