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Biotech Round Table Needed

The federal government should create a round table to create a dialogue between organic farmers and growers who raise genetically engineered crops, says Liberal MP Frank Valeriote.

Given the often acrimonious relations between the two camps, the Guelph MP asked biotechnology experts testifying before the Commons agriculture committee whether a round table format would bring out their common interests.

The committee is in the early stages of a study on biotechnology and has to produce recommendations for the government. Getting the two camps together could create solutions to organic complaints about the spread of GE genes into their crops.

“Bringing stakeholders together to see eye to eye is always a good idea,” said Ian Mauro, a researcher at the University of Victoria. But he said a dialogue is difficult when the technology facilitates dominance of one way of growing food over another.

Gord Surgeoner, president of the Ontario Agri-Food Technologies, said a round table was worth trying. “At the end of the day there may be certain areas we agree on and certain areas we agree to disagree on. But face-to-face conversation and working on these things is always better. You both come out better than you went in.”

Bev Shipley, Conservative MP for Lambton–Kent–Middlesex, said the committee must wrestle with the potential biotechnology brings to agriculture.

“As we move ahead in terms of a development, whether it’s nanotechnology, biotechnology, all the things that come together, there really has got to be transparency and involvement of stakeholders on markets, the health issues, and all those things that come along.

It’s important to prevent the issue from being dominated by “some very small, powerful, special- interest groups that actually are looking for a particular interest rather than the best interest of an industry or of Canadians as a whole,” he added.

Rickey Yada, a University of Guelph food science professor, said government should consider getting farmers and consumers involved early in the development of new genetically engineering crops to ease public concern about GE technology.

“Bring them in right at the start,” Yada said in an interview after a presentation to the committee Dec. 14. “Don’t wait until you’ve developed the technology and want to put it on the market.”

The committee study will continue when Parliament returns from the Christmas break. The committee is looking into whether the federal GE approval process requires changes to assure consumers in Canada and abroad that the food supply is safe.

Mauro said research he did among Prairie farmers found they appreciated its lower production costs, but worried about the spread of GE traits into traditional plants.

He said 83 per cent of western farmers are opposed to the introduction of GE wheat or alfalfa because of the probable loss of foreign markets. They also worry about the dominance of large multinationals of seed production.

The federal approval process for GE varieties should include provisions that look at their impact on exports, he continued. There would be no benefit for farmers if a new GE variety causes Canada to be shut out of overseas countries.

“We can grow GE crops safely but the regulations must evolve to recognize the social impacts of biotechnology,” he added. That would include the market impact of new varieties.

Surgeoner said GE plants have been grown for 15 years in Canada. “There are no validated cases of harm caused to either humans or the environment. However, there have been significant benefits in terms of less tillage and reduced pesticide spraying.”

He urged that the approval process should look at potential benefits of a new GE variety instead of just the risks as it does now. “In today’s regulatory system, products such as wheat, milk, soybeans, peanuts and tree nuts would probably not have been registered because of potential health risks.”

Currently about 85 per cent of canola, 70 per cent of soybeans and 50 per cent of corn grown in Canada is a GE variety.

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Bringingstakeholders togethertoseeeye toeyeisalways agoodidea.”

– IAN MAURO

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