GM food meeting left bad taste
Montreal Gazette Friday, March 1, 2002
For the huge agri-food corporations that dominate Canada's food-production industry, the spring of 1999 was a worrying time. Consumers and advocacy groups were waking up to the fact that the sudden appearance of genetically modified foods on their grocery shelves had taken place with little notice, debate, or independent long-term testing. And for Ottawa, which had been heavily investing in biotech research with the hopes of exploiting vast new export markets, the signs were worrying.
That's why federal Agriculture Minister Lyle Vanclief convened an extraordinary - and secret - roundtable meeting for April 12, 1999. Invited were many of the stakeholders: representatives from the PMO; the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and big players from the biotechnology industry, including Novartis head Byron Beeler.
Also invited were communications specialists Joyce Groote of the industry group BIOTECanada and Diane Weatherall of the Food Biotechnology Communications Network.
One journalist was invited: Canadian Living Magazine associate editor Anna Hobbs, who in a letter to Vanclief the next day said attending the meeting was a "privilege." Hobbs also had a suggestion. "Based on my experience with the food-safety concerns surrounding Alar and the apple industry," she wrote, "communication is most effective when government and industry partner with a credible, independent third party that, in consumers' perception, does not have the vested interest of a stakeholder."
Hobbs went on to pitch the $300,000 pro-biotech insert deal in Canadian Living that appeared amid much controversy a year later. The letter is one of dozens of documents released under Access to Information requests to Canadian Health Coalition researcher Bradford Duplisea. And they paint a more complete picture of the sense of panic in Ottawa and the industry over public resistance to GM foods.
According to Joyce Groote's notes, the meeting "helped to highlight the need for immediate co-ordinated action to deal with this crisis at hand." As with Hobbs, Groote's wish list was granted.
Ever since, Ottawa has been pouring millions of taxpayer dollars into a communications strategy to convince people in Canada and abroad that they're wrong to mistrust biotechnology. As Hobbs pointed out, credible front organizations needed to be created to counter perceptions that the effort is not simply a marketing con job. Murray McLaughlin, the CEO of Foragen Technology Ventures, pounded the point home in another letter to Vanclief dated April 28, 1999. "We need a champion to convey the information to the public while at the same time bring the industry together," McLaughlin wrote. "A possible vehicle for the communications component is the Food Biotechnology Communications Networks."
The FBCN portrays itself as a neutral purveyor of "balanced, science-based facts about food biotechnology and its impact on our food system."
Conveniently, Ottawa and the biotechnology sector were already very friendly with the group, splitting the FBCN's budget between them. But as Duplisea's remarkable research shows, the FBCN is only one - though a crucial - part of a vast backroom campaign to push GM foods on an unwilling public. Crucial for Exports Take a 1997 funding application form completed by FBCN executive director Diane Weatherall for the AFT 2000 program from Vanclief's department. It argues improved international public acceptance is "crucial to the export of commodities containing production of transgenic varieties such as canola, soybeans and corn, initially, but ultimately most grains, oilseeds, special crops and horticultural crops." It goes on to claim this promotional role is part of a "factual and balanced" information campaign. As an arms-length organization, the FBCN is positioned as the "source of credible, impartial information to the ultimate decision maker, the consumer."
Nonetheless, according to the Project Assessment Consultation, the agriculture department's policy branch had some well-founded reservations about public gullibility toward the organization (which was then known as the Food Biotechnology Centre, or FBC). "There could be concern about the 'neutrality' of FBC," the policy wonks write.
"Throughout the application, the FBC comes across as pro-biotechnology. Is there a danger of a public perception of FBC as a voice of industry rather than a source of factual unbiased information?" Good question.
Lyle Stewart is a Montreal writer. His E-mail is
"...the 'sound science' movement is not an indigenous effort from within the profession to improve the quality of scientific discourse, but reflects sophisticated public relations campaigns controlled by industry executives and lawyers whose aim is to manipulate the standards of scientific proof to serve the corporate interests of their clients."
Doctors Elisa Ong and Stanton A. Glantz writing in the America Journal of Public Health, November 2001,
"The hope of the industry is that over time the market is so flooded [with GM] that there's nothing you can do about it. You just sort of surrender."
- Don Westfall, vice-president of PROMAR INTERNATIONAL whose client list includes all the world's major food businesses incl. ConAgra FoodsInc., Unilever NV, and Aventis SA