The Manitoba Flax Growers Association (MFGA) has decided it won’t support Bill C-474, a private member’s bill that would require market impact be considered before approving the release of new genetically modified (GM) crops in Canada.
“It is a difficult issue,” MFGA president Eric Fridfinnson said in an interview May 6, the day after the board of directors adopted its position. “There’s a legitimate concern that markets can be affected by the new technology coming forward, but at the same time we are concerned about frivolous claims being made that would block technology for the people who want it.”
Canada lost its biggest flax customer, the European Union last summer after it detected traces of CDC Triffid, a GM flax approved in Canada, but not in the EU, in Canadian cargoes.
The decision, in light of many letters from flax farmers who support C-474, has left the bill’s author, Alex Atamanenko, puzzled.
Atamanenko, an NDP MP and agriculture critic, said he can’t see how the bill would allow frivolous claims to block new GM crops.
“It doesn’t seem that complicated,” he said. “Before we allow the technology to happen let’s do a check (on its market acceptance).”
The MFGA is concerned the bill would make the government liable for market harm rather than the GM developer. That’s not in the bill’s text nor is it the intent, Atamanenko said.
The MFGA is also worried about who would decide whether a new GM crop will cause market harm or not. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency doesn’t have the expertise, according to Fridfinnson.
Neither the Flax Council of Canada nor the Saskatchewan Flax Development Commission has taken a position on C-474. Both say they support a “science-based” regulatory system, but also acknowledge the commercialization of GM flax in Canada before being approved in the EU and other importing countries, could undermine markets.
The Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP) also has concerns about C-474, but is pleased, as is the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, that the issue will be discussed at public hearings being held by the House of Commons agriculture committee.
Companies that develop GM crops say if C-474 is passed they will stop developing GM crops for Canadian farmers.
Atamanenko said they are using scare tactics to sway the debate.
KAP president Ian Wishart agrees companies might be overstating their concerns, nevertheless farmers take the threat seriously because they are increasingly reliant on them for new crop varieties, especially canola, corn and soybeans, because publicly funded research has declined.
If importing countries won’t accept GM crops, there’s no point in companies releasing them, Atamanenko said.
“If they are against this you kind of wonder what their motives are,” he said. “Do they want to push this technology on in the hopes that it will get out there and contaminate and there will be no choice? That’s a pretty sinister thought, but who knows?”
Atamanenko said he wants GM developers to explain their opposition to the bill during the hearings that start in Ottawa May 31.
“This is not just a committee to study one side,” he said. “We are going to be there listening to what they have to say. I would like them to tell me point blank why they feel this would interfere with their ability to innovate and why it would interfere with their ability to make a profit.” [email protected]