LETTER FROM ONTARIO

A Trade Deal without Consumer Benefits? The bottom line of GM crops

Farm & Countryside Commentary by Elbert van Donkersgoed

Editor's NOTE

This column was adapted from one of Elbert van Donkersgoed's weekly radio chats, called Corner Post, which are aired weekly on CFCO Radio in Chatham and CKNX Radio in Wingham, Ontario. Elbert is the Strategic Policy Advisor of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, which is working hard to create a more satisfying and sustainable model for farming in the province. If you'd like to receive a transcript of Elbert's Corner Post address each week, send an email to evd@christianfarmers.org with SUBSCRIBE as the message.

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August 18, 2003: Why are the British so cautious about genetically modified food? Michael Meacher, the United Kingdom's former-Environment Minister, recently dropped by Prime Minister Tony Blair from his cabinet, came to Guelph at the end of July to explain.

The UK is far behind North America in the approval of GM crops. A report expected this fall on four years of field trials will set the stage for a possible change in UK policy. Meacher does not support change. He remains cautious about growing GM crops in United Kingdom fields for four reasons: human health, environment, coexistence and labeling.

On health he wants human health testing on a case-by-case basis. He rejects the substantial equivalence of GM foods to conventional foods that is the foundation of the North American approval system.

On environment he identifies concerns not studied in UK field trials: the impact of fields of genetically modified plants on soil bacteria and bird populations.

On coexistence he believes that the commercial growing of GM plants will make farming difficult for organic and conventional farmers Meacher maintains coexistence will be impossible in the UK countryside.

On labeling he sided with the right of consumers to know and choose not to eat GM food. Labeling always raises the issue: when is food free of genetic modification? Meacher favored an allowable "contamination" of less than 1%.

Listing Meacher's four reasons for caution doesn't tell the whole story about the British guarded approach to genetically modified food. There is more going on here.

What's the rush? More than once Meacher asked why North America was in such a hurry. On this side of the Atlantic, it's because we believe, or have been persuaded to believe, that GM plants give farming an economic boost. Meacher rejects this view: "There is no economic case for GM food in the United Kingdom."

If the British are not persuaded of the economic benefits to GM food, the questions about health, environment, coexistence and labeling loom large. We might be persuaded that there is a production benefit from GM technology but the British question is: Where's the food benefit? Genetic modification has yet to demonstrate a benefit - economic or otherwise - for consumers.

Meacher asked himself: "Will the European Union's moratorium on the approval of GM foods buckle under the U.S. challenge through the World Trade Organization. His answer was unequivocal: "No."

Canadians will do well to assume that he is right.

An international trade deal is about every country's consumers being winners - economic winners. As long as GM food does not deliver a consumer benefit, what is it doing in a trade deal?

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Corner Post can be heard weekly on CFCO Radio, Chatham and CKNX Radio, Wingham, Ontario. Corner Post is archived on the website of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario: www.christianfarmers.org. To be added to the electronic distribution list of Corner Post, send email to evd@christianfarmers.org with SUBSCRIBE as the message. To remove your name, send email with UNSUBSCRIBE as the message.