A New Bottom Line for Kevin O’Leary

A New Bottom Line for Kevin O’Leary 

Author …. Mary Lou MacDonald, October 2013

 Rachel Parent recently “schooled” Kevin O’Leary, also known as “Mr. Wonderful”, on the issue of testing of genetically engineered (GE) foods in Canada.  Rachel is a 14 year old that started ‘Kids Right To Know’, a Toronto group that campaigns for the mandatory labelling of genetically engineered (GE) food.  Mr. O’ Leary is one of the hosts on the “Lang & O’Leary Exchange” who always has his eye on the bottom line.

Here is the exchange as it occurred on August 14, 2013 on national television:  

Mr. Wonderful:                “ ..so when a product comes to market, many people test it, including the  government.” 

Rachel:                 “[N]either the FDA nor Health Canada do any independent studies on GE food safety, relying instead on the results provided by the companies that stand to gain by their approval”. 

And there we have it – a TKO that Mr. Wonderful didn’t really recover from.[i][ii]

But maybe we should give Mr. Wonderful a break.  He is like many other wonderful Canadians who “trust” that our government will do the right thing.  Surely they will test GE foods.  Surely they will make sure the products are safe before we consume them.

 Well here are some points that may change this view:

·        Testing isn’t even required.  

When a company wants to sell or advertise for sale a “novel food” it only has to submit a notification prepared under the “Guidelines for the Safety Assessment of Novel Foods”.[iii]  The notification does not require any testing, only “information relied on to establish that the novel food is safe for consumption”.  Only if the Food Directorate thinks it needs more information to establish that a food is safe for consumption does it request additional information and then assess this additional information.   But even this second assessment stage does not require information on testing or mandate the company to perform testing.

 ·        Only evidence provided by the companies is looked at.

The party that submits the additional information is the company that wants to sell or advertise the novel food.  No other party is asked to or required to provide evidence on safety or harm. 

 ·        This evidence doesn’t even address harm.

All that is asked for is information to establish that a novel food is safe for consumption.  If not enough such information is provided, the company is just asked to provide additional information to establish the safety. Green Light or Try Again. There is no requirement to provide information on potential harm. 

 ·      The basis for the assessment doesn’t review safety to humans in regard to toxicity and allergic reactions.

The safety assessment is performed based on a standard known as the Codex Guidelines. [iv]   The Codex Guidelines, by their own admission, don’t look at how environmental factors affect toxic properties of a substance[v], and can’t test for allergic reactions.[vi]  But we all know that the environment plays a role in how our bodies react, and that there are far more allergies today than previously.

·        There is no specific review at all for indirect effects on human health.

Health Canada itself admits that the current regulations do not provide for the assessment of the environmental impact or for assessment of certain indirect human health aspects that the manufacture or import of a novel food may have. [vii]

 ·        No one except the company has status to complain.  And why would they?

Who is the party directly affected by the process?  Only the company seeking to receive a written notice from the Food Directorate that it does not object to the sale of the novel food in Canada.  No other parties who might be interested in the process would have any status.

So what is the bottom line from above?

The New Bottom Line

The bottom line is we can no longer assume that the government is looking out for our health when it comes to GE foods.  Because we all know what an assumption makes out of you, me and Mr. O’Leary.  No offence Mr. Wonderful, you are in good company: many of us could take a lesson or two from Rachel Parent.

[iv] Codex Alimenarius Commission for 2003: The Guidelines for the Conduct of Food Safety Assessment of Foods Derived from Recombinant DNA Plants (the” 2003 Codex Guidelines”).

[v] The toxic potential of a GE organism is even recognized in the 2003 Codex Guidelines themselves (p. 60):

  “Techniques used in the genetic modification of plants of microorganisms have the potential to induce unintended effects on the genome of the modified organism that could be manifested as an alteration in the levels of toxicants or antinutrients normally produced by the organism.  The intended genetic alteration may also influence behavior of the organism with respect to accumulation of contaminants, pesticides or other substances from the environment that were not anticipated.

Compositional analysis is the method currently used for detection of unintended changes to the genome that result in accumulation of toxic substances of either endogenous [internal] or exogenous [external] origin.  Because of the influence of environmental stress on production of endogenous components such as toxins and anti-nutrients, data should be collected from a number of different test sites.  New, more sensitive technologies that allow the determination of alternations to expression of the organisms’ genome are presently under development”.

[vi] “[a]t present, there is no definitive test that can be relied upon to measure directly the allergenic potential of a newly expressed protein in humans” 2003 Codex Guidelines (p. 61).

[vii] In the Guidelines for the Safety Assessment of Novel Foods, Health Canada indicates it is in the process of developing the regulatory framework, but until then “information on potential environmental and indirect human health impact of a novel food is required pursuant to the New Substances Regulations under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (“CEPA”).  It then goes on to state that it is the responsibility of the petition to ensure it is compliant with CEPA. The focus of CEPA is with determining whether a new substance is toxic.  The definition of toxic, however, is toxic in relation to the environment, rather than humans, except that an item is considered toxic if it constitutes or may constitute a danger in Canada to human life or health.  It is unlikely that any information provided by a petitioner would indicate that a new substance “may constitute a danger in Canada to human life or health”


Public Awareness in the campaign against GMOs

Public Awareness and the Campaign against GMOs

Author … Rob Adams, October, 2013

Like many others, I care about what I eat and how that food is produced.  Also like many others, I’ve spent many hours marching in rallies in and around Toronto, waving banners, handing out flyers and collecting signatures on petitions in an attempt to get changes in our genetically engineered (GE) food regulations.  No matter what the event, I have always been impressed and encouraged by the dedication and passion I have seen from like-minded people who have chosen to give up their time for what they believe in.  While collecting signatures on a petition recently, I was challenged by someone who felt that campaigning this way was a waste of time.  He refused to sign the petition because, according to him, ‘Our politicians never listen, nor do they care, so why bother!’  This caused me to reflect on what we do and wonder how much truth there was in what he said.

We know that outside of Canada there has been a lot of progress.  There are many GE-free zones around the world and even more that enforce mandatory labelling of GE ingredients.  Progress in Canada has been slower and we need to understand why.   Is it because in other parts of the world politicians listen more and care more?  Perhaps, in some cases, but it’s not quite that simple.  In the U.K. for example, where they have mandatory labelling laws, it was not an altruistic approach by their government that brought about the change; it was public pressure.   A significant factor contributing to successes elsewhere has been the high public awareness of GE issues.  In fact, public opposition has been so great in Europe that Monsanto has significantly reduced its focus there.  Even in the U.S., despite some influential institutions like the New York Times and Scientific American that appear to support the use of GE foods without mandatory labelling, the tide is turning.  A number of states in the U.S. are considering mandatory labelling laws and it’s just a question of time before that happens.

I believe Canadians, on the whole, are more trusting of their government than most.  Compared to other activist groups around the world it could be argued that Canadians are more complacent; less willing to rock the boat.  For example, in France, concerned farmers twice destroyed experimental GE grapevines.  In Spain, GE corn crops were destroyed by activists and in India, Bt cotton was burned in a protest against Monsanto.   This is not typically the Canadian way, so our approach needs to be different.

Unfortunately, in Canada, Monsanto (et. al.), together with our complicit government, has done a great job of keeping people in the dark when it comes to genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  We need to change that if we want to be successful here.  I am always amazed when I talk to people other than the ‘anti-GMO in-crowd’, how many are not aware of GMOs.  Even otherwise health-conscious people, who know the calorie count, sodium content and nutritional value of their foods, have no clue about the potential health concerns of the GMOs they may be eating.  There are so many people that I’ve spoken with – educated, well-informed people – that have absolutely no idea what GMOs are.  If they do, they naively believe that if they’re sanctioned by our government they must be safe.  As we know, this implicit trust in our government is sadly undeserved.

History has shown that a handful of well meaning people organized and deployed strategically for a common cause can be victorious in their struggle.  As an example, in Canada, after ten years of protest, approval for Bovine Growth Hormone, Monsanto’s genetically engineered drug to make dairy cows produce more milk, was denied by the Canadian Government in 2004.  But we need to recognize that Monsanto and others like them are well financed, well connected politically, strategically focussed and known to be ruthless in their pursuit of controlling our food supply.  The anti-GMO groups in Canada, while being both dedicated and passionate for the cause, are not well financed, lack resources, do not enjoy the same influence politically as the biotech companies and are not ruthless.  And while individual groups may certainly have strategic focus, this focus is often local or provincial at best.

Monsanto understands why the battle was lost in Europe and they do not want to lose elsewhere, especially in North America – their home turf.  They will not concede any ground without a fight which makes them a formidable opponent indeed.  This should concern us, for sure, but not dissuade us from our mission.  We need to think differently when planning our strategy because this struggle is very winnable.  We may not be able to match their financial resources, nor their political connections, but if enough people oppose them we will beat them.  They may be formidable, but Europe has shown us that they are not invincible!

Although we have dedicated and knowledgeable people working hard in our campaigns, I believe there’s a vast middle ground of uninformed people that we need to reach.  A 2012 opinion poll showed that 76% of Canadians felt that the government does not share enough information on GE products and 9% of Canadians didn’t even know what they were[i].   And while I recognize that opinions in this middle ground may be mixed, Canadian’s have a right to be informed on what GMOs are and how to recognize them in their food.   We also have a democratic right to have a voice on how our food system is being regulated – especially when it comes to new technologies where the short and long-term risks of consuming these products are unknown.  So, if the government doesn’t inform the people then we have to.

I believe that the majority of Canadians will have concerns about this technology, so until a wider group of people become aware of what’s going on and consider GMOs in their food choices we will not see a true representation of Canadian opinion and changes will be more difficult to enact.  Until that happens, our politicians will not listen and they will not care.  Also, as a consequence, our grocery stores will continue to stock foods containing GMOs, unlabelled, and our farmers will therefore continue growing GE crops.  We need to widen the audience we are talking to and make a broader segment of the population aware of the issues.

With Toronto being Canada’s largest city and Ontario the province with the greatest populace, we have a unique opportunity to make changes happen for all Canadians.  We must continue with the rallies, the petitions and the flyers despite some days feeling frustrated that our efforts don’t get immediate results; that our politicians are not listening; that our politicians don’t care.  Some days we may even feel that we are losing ground; but we should not get discouraged.  One rally or one petition on its own may make little difference, but I firmly believe that through the continued efforts of those that care , layered one event on top of the other, we will eventually achieve the changes we would like to see.  Most importantly, going forward, our tactics should ensure we engage, educate and inform with every opportunity we get.  We don’t really need to talk to the people that think like us, we need to talk to the people that don’t think like us.  We all need to challenge ourselves to widen our sphere of influence and explore other avenues to get the knowledge out there because public awareness and public opinion will be the deciding factors at the end of the day.  By increasing public awareness and gaining strength through numbers we’ll make our politicians listen and we’ll make them care, albeit for the wrong reasons.

Margaret Mead once said Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world.  For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.   Let’s go change our world together!

Event: Millions against Monsanto – Toronto march October 12 2013

On May 25th, 2013 two millions people across the global (including 2000+ in Toronto!) participated in the the inaugural MARCH AGAINST MONSANTO, hosted by Millions Against Monsanto.

A second march will take place on October 12th, 2013. Information on the Toronto March can be found at https://www.facebook.com/events/556507851059248/

The march is being held in conjunction with WORLD FOOD DAY (http://www.worldfooddaycanada.ca/) and Dr. Vandana Shiva’s SEED & FOOD FREEDOM campaign (https://www.facebook.com/savetheseed),

As stated on the Facebook page “the Oct. 12 MARCH AGAINST MONSANTO is a global call to action aimed at informing the public and calling into question long-term health and environmental effects of genetically modified foods. If you’re new to the cause, welcome and don’t miss this empowering opportunity to raise your voice in solidarity with millions around the globe fighting the corporations who are threatening our farmers, our health, our children and our planet”

Event: CFIA Consultations (Toronto) Oct 22 2013

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is holding a consultation meeting on their “Food Labelling Modernization” in Toronto on October 22nd. The consultation will be from 12:00 to 4:30pm.

The consultation includes the question “When looking at the food label, which specific pieces of labeling information are adequate to make an informed decision? Where do gaps exist?”

The CFIA should be labeling GM foods for consumer choice (this is CFIA’s responsibility, not Health Canada’s).

The registration deadline is October 15. To register please go to: http://www.inspection.gc.ca/food/labelling/labelling-modernization-initiative/consultations/face-to-face-engagement-sessions/eng/1378236636065/1378236761342