Grappling with GM animals

The House of Commons agriculture committee has recommended greater regulatory transparency when evaluating genetically modified animals for human consumption.

However, it stopped short of recommending mandatory labelling of GM foods, saying the government should support that only for issues of food health and safety.

The NDP committee members filed a dissenting report on that point.

The report, tabled in the House in mid-December, follows public hearings in the fall after Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay requested the committee examine the legal and regulatory framework around GM animals.

Last spring, Health Canada approved AquaBounty salmon for both human and animal consumption, although it is not yet on the market. It was earlier approved in the United States and is also undergoing assessment in Argentina and Brazil.

GM crops have been around for decades, but the GM salmon is the first animal in the world for human consumption.

Research into a GM hog developed at the University of Guelph in 1999 stopped after Ontario Pork withdrew its support in 2012.

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The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association told the committee that GM cattle won’t be on the market any time soon because the industry prefers classic selection.

The committee heard that the main reason more GM animals aren’t in development is consumer acceptance.

“Although producers in North America have largely embraced GM crops because of the economic and agronomic benefits they bring (in Canada alone improved crops have raised yields by 32 percent, according to CropLife), this is not the case in other countries, especially those of the European Union,” the report said.

“The testimony showed that the market still seems reluctant to accept transgenic animals.”

Other witnesses doubted the benefits of genetic modification in agriculture as a whole, suggesting they haven’t reduced pesticide use as claimed and have had little to no impact on reducing hunger because they aren’t grown in countries where hunger is an issue.

They also said there was no public consultation around the GM salmon. The Canadian Biotechnology Action Network asked the government to impose a moratorium on GM animal introduction until Canadians have their say.

“On the other hand, all the witnesses representing the biotechnology industry and the agriculture and agri-food sector are of the view that the market should be left to decide,” the report said.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency noted the country’s regulatory system focuses on safety and environmental protection, rather than making value judgments about why a product is created.

Witnesses said improving transparency of the regulatory system would boost public trust and provide better acceptance of products.

Suggestions included increasing independent research funding on the effects of GM products on health and the environment, and allowing Health Canada to do its own studies rather than rely on data from industry.

The committee heard from witnesses, including the CFIA, who said labelling is a complex issue.

While most consumers say GM foods should be labelled and that they don’t want to eat them, their buying behaviour suggests otherwise. Some witnesses suggested that mandatory labelling implies there are risks to GM foods.

“Given that no risks to health have been identified for GM foods approved in Canada, there are no particular labelling requirements,” the committee said in recommending mandatory labelling for health and safety only.

The NDP’s dissenting report said the opinions from witnesses on mandatory labelling were far from unanimous, and the committee recommendation doesn’t reflect that.

Instead, the NDP said the committee should have recommended that government, stakeholders and consumers work together to establish a GM labelling plan.

The committee also recommended the government support independent research into the health, environmental and other effects of new GM technologies, including those that would produce GM animals. Another recommendation called on the government and industry to establish tools for traceability for GM animals.

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