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Canada leads efforts to convince importers to dump zero tolerance

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.

About the author


Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.


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  • The Europeans will have to watch out that they are not being bambozzled into accepting more traces of GM in these imports. You know the story about the camel being allowed to stick his head in the tent. Before you know it, you’re sleeping with the entire camel in your tent.
    Europeans are wise enough to know better, I sure hope. How about Canada setting a good example, clean up their act, and deliver the non-GMO products requested by the Euporean consumers to the best of their ability?
    You know this is orchestrated by the biotech and agro- chemical companies. The Canadian agriculture minister is just the front man for them. Willing or unwilling? Unbiasedly informed or biased by corporate propaganda? You will have to ask him.
    If we are not careful we will lose this valuable market. Europeans know the Americans are an unrelieable source of wholesome grain with GM crops growing rampant across their farmland.
    The arrogant statement made,that because one country has studied GM traits and found it safe, it should be accepted by all, is an insult to the intelligence of the Europeans. They know ,as well as many of us in North America, that the game is rigged in favor of the agri-chemical and biotechnology industry.
    If there is going to be a tsunami of new GM crops it’s only because our government is allowing’ the camel in the tent.’
    As well, we would be NUTS to allow GM alfalfa into this country. The only beneficiaries are Forage Genetics International and Monsanto.
    However I am told(via Canadian Biotechnology Action Network- cban) that Health Canada and CFIA registered one GM variety in late April 2013 but it has not been legal to sell the seed yet! The US allowed planting of GM alfalfa in 2011.
    Farmers and consumers do not know when a company requests registration. The registration is considered “confidential business information”.
    We’re losing our bees already why add another log to the fire, with the introduction of GM alfalfa.
    Plus other informed countries will not buy GM alfalfa.

  • Sorry about the spelling mistakes. There’s probably more! It should have read ‘bamboozled’ not bambozzled and ‘unreliable’ not unrelieable.

  • This is part of a bigger push by grain-trading nations to weaken GM regulation, adopt harmonised policies and forgive GM contamination, even of unapproved GM crop varieties. The agreement by six countries, signed in April 2013, is here: