Canada is leading efforts to get an international agreement that would see countries accept small amounts of unapproved genetically modified (GM) crops in their imports, says Dennis Stephens.
And the Oakbank-based secretary of the International Grain Trade Coalition credits Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz for leading the charge.
Ritz, along with Canada’s flax industry, experienced first hand the economic impact the low-level presence of an unapproved GM trait can have on trade. In 2009, the European Union temporarily banned imports of Canadian flax after discovering trace levels of CDC Triffid, a GM flax in shipments. The flax had been approved in Canada, but not Europe.
Eventually Canadian flax exports containing less than 0.01 per cent were allowed into the EU, but by then, Canada had lost the lucrative food flax market.
As of 2010, Triffid flax had cost Canada’s flax industry $29 million, according to a study done by University of Saskatchewan agricultural economists Camille Ryan and Stuart Smyth.
“We see a tsunami coming of new (GM) events hitting the commercial market and we must have a capability of managing that in a way that doesn’t disrupt trade,” Stephens told the Grain Industry Symposium — an annual conference organized by the Canada Grains Council and Grain Growers of Canada.
If one country has studied a GM trait and found it to be safe, then other countries should accept traces of it even though they have not yet approved the trait, Stephens said. After all, he said, if a country deems 100 per cent of a product safe, there should be minimal risk if that product makes up five per cent of a shipment, he said.
“There has to be some practical common sense on this file,” Stephens said.
Because small amounts of GM crops are left in rail cars, the holds of ships and in containers, traces of GM traits are bound to show up.
Compounding the risk is that few countries approve a new GM trait at the same time.
The IGTC proposes allowing grain shipments to contain unapproved traits of up to five per cent. Stephens said grain companies could meet that threshold for little or no extra cost. The lower the threshold, the higher the cost, with zero being next to impossible to meet.
“And that cost impact will be passed on to the buyer of the grain and in effect increase the food costs within that country that’s doing the importing,” Stephens said.
After speaking at the same conference Ritz told reporters he’s optimistic an international low-level-presence policy will be achieved.
“I think the world is coming to the realization that if you’re going to have food security and sustainability you’re going to have to start to look at biotechnology and that means a good low-level policy,” he said.
“I’d like to see it in place before I retire.”
Ritz said European leaders acknowledged during his most recent trip to Europe that the issue needs to be addressed. Europe has set a threshold of 0.1 per cent, but it only applies to feed. According to Stephens that isn’t practical since some feed crops are also used for food.
“We’re starting to get some critical mass,” Ritz said, noting 15 countries support a low-level-presence policy in principle.
Ritz said he hopes the issue is discussed by the Cairns Group before the World Trade Organization meeting in Bali next month. He’s also pushing the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization to hold a meeting on low-level presence in the spring.
A low-level presence protocol could be established in 2014, with some countries implementing it in 2015, Stephens said.
“My hope is once you break that ice jam you start to… facilitate a faster track as you move downstream…” he said.