2 items from the Toronto Star
Taxpayers fund food biotech giant
The Toronto Star February 11, 2001
'Why a huge multinational corporation needs a government subsidy is beyond me. And why CIDA should be promoting a young technology with such a lot of questions is doubly troubling.'
Canadian taxpayers spent more than $280,000 to directly promote the use of genetically modified crops created by multinational giant Monsanto Company, The Star has learned. Over objections from some officials - including Canada's embassy in Beijing - the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) gave the money to a project in China aimed at encouraging farmers there to grow Monsanto's controversial genetically modified cotton and corn. Ottawa supports biotechnology, seeing it as a source of jobs and profits in Canada, as well as a way to dramatically increase the world's food supply. Several federal departments have funded projects involving Monsanto and other biotech companies. But critics say Canada should not back research into genetically modified food and, in particular, should not get involved with firms such as Monsanto. "I'm appalled," Ann Clark, a plant researcher at the University of Guelph and an opponent of genetically modified food, said in an interview. "Canada should be seen as a beacon for ecologically sound production methods," she said, calling the China project "wrongheaded."
"It's absolutely shocking," said geneticist David Suzuki. "Why a huge multinational corporation needs a government subsidy is beyond me. And why CIDA should be promoting a young technology with such a lot of questions is doubly troubling. "There should be . . . an investigation about CIDA and what its priorities are."
A report by the Royal Society of Canada, released last week, lists potential dangers from genetically modified foods and points out serious flaws in Canada's regulation and testing of the products. It also complains that Ottawa is too close to the biotechnology industry, and in a conflict of interest as both its regulator and promoter.
The project in China was partially funded by CIDA-INC, the branch of the agency that supports Canadian companies setting up businesses in developing countries. It was launched in 1998 and CIDA is awaiting a report before sending the final cheque, for about $70,000. The report authorizing the grant - one of several documents obtained under the Access to Information Act by Ottawa researcher Ken Rubin - makes it clear the goal is to promote the spread of genetically modified crops. "Given the strong linkage with Monsanto . . . the prospects for the biotechnology sector in Canada are strong," states the approval, signed by three CIDA officials. CIDA estimated that if the project expands as planned, over five years it would generate about $35 million of business and support 125 jobs in Canada. The project is headed by Agriteam Canada, a Calgary-based consulting firm that specializes in development projects, and has a representative on the Team Canada trade trip to China. It involves training farmers in Chenliuying - a village a few hours' drive on a new highway southwest of Beijing - to adopt techniques to improve productivity and reduce the environmental impact of agriculture. It included introducing them to two products from St. Louis-based Monsanto - Bt cotton and corn. A Bt product contains a gene from a bacteria that helps it to ward off insect pests. The cotton seed is processed into edible oil. Another product, Roundup Ready corn, was included in the proposal backed by CIDA, but not used, since it hasn't been approved by China. It is genetically modified so that it won't be killed by Monsanto's weed-killer "Roundup" - which can then be sprayed on the crop. The products have been approved by Canada. The corn is grown here; the cotton is not. It's not clear, the critics say, whether genetically modified foods - even those approved for human consumption - are safe. "We've never eaten Bt before as a species," Clark said. "We're now being given the opportunity to serve as guinea pigs to test the effects, if any, of large-scale ingestion."
And, despite claims to the contrary, Clark said, genetically modified foods lead to increased dependence on chemical pesticides, and raise the amount of such chemicals in the food. As well, she said, while initial results may be spectacular, growing biotech crops can impoverish Third World farmers by forcing them to buy seed and chemicals each year. Most farmers in developing countries keep seeds from one year's crop to grow the next year's, and share them with neighbours. But Monsanto - to ensure it profits from its invention - prohibits growers from saving seeds, and checks up on them, requiring them to show proof they've bought any seeds they're using. "If the trend is not stopped, the patenting of transgenic plants . . . will soon lead to universal 'bioserfdom,' in which farmers will lease their plants . . . from conglomerates such as Monsanto and pay royalties on seeds," says Ron Cummins, of a U.S. group called the Campaign for Food Safety. Suzuki said his main concern is that, "there's no telling what the impact will be when these things (genetically modified plants) start being released in the wild." Genetically modified plants "are new species. We don't know what their impacts will be. "Why at such an early stage are we so anxious to rush it into application? . . . Money is putting it into overdrive." CIDA's plan to fund the China project ran into opposition within the government. An early CIDA analysis noted that a group described as "all technical specialists" who had reviewed the project had commented: "The level of effort on this appears high, especially as INC does not support demonstration projects."
The proposal "generated mixed comments from the interdepartmental committee that reviewed it," Simone Robin, then director of CIDA-INC's Asia branch, wrote in a letter to Agriteam. And the funding got a hostile response from the Canadian embassy in Beijing, which wondered why CIDA was giving money to a wealthy global company. "Post (the embassy) does not support this proposal," Dave Murphy, an embassy official who had consulted with two other staff, said in a message to the program manager at CIDA. "We are concerned about proposal that CIDA-INC finance a demonstration project that would otherwise be part of a commercial business plan for a healthy, self-sufficient multinational."
The embassy also felt it was time for Agriteam, which has received several other federal grants, "to fly by itself without government help," a CIDA report states. And CIDA prepared itself for criticism. An unsigned briefing note, apparently from CIDA staff in Beijing, points out that Monsanto is "under attack worldwide," has been "driven from Europe" and is being accused by critics of " using Third World countries to conduct seed trials. . . . The reality is that Monsanto is saddled with a major public relations disaster of international proportions."
The note recommends that CIDA "develop a public relations strategy or approach in anticipation of any public enquiry which may materialize."
Despite the opposition and misgivings, the funding was approved on July 31, 1998. The support was given on "an exceptional basis," because the village project could be linked with a larger one aimed at improving agricultural productivity throughout the region, Robin noted in her letter to Agriteam. "The goal of the project is to be able to conclusively demonstrate to the Government of China the production benefits derived by applying Bt cotton and weed control technologies, in combination with other management technologies," states CIDA's project management report.
"Monsanto envisions this pilot farm as the first of many which they hope to replicate across China."
The company put $280,000 in goods and services into the project and was expected to invest another $20 million "in a campaign to promote its biotechnology in China if the project proves successful," another CIDA document states.
The project is continuing under the sponsorship of Monsanto and IMC Global, an international mining, fertilizer and animal feed producer that operates potash mines in Saskatchewan through a subsidiary, IMC Kalium.
Part of the project is to improve fertilizer use, which involves applying more potash- based products. The issue of supporting biotechnology "was discussed" and the discussions " are ongoing," CIDA spokesperson Steven Morris said in an interview. As for Monsanto's involvement, he said: "There were discussions, as with any proposal we receive."
In the end, he said, CIDA was "comfortable" because Bt cotton had been approved in the U.S. and Canada. "It was not a new product."
"The project has gone very well," Agriteam vice-president Alex Shumacher said in an interview from Calgary. The Bt cotton flourished last year, although a rainy harvest season spoiled much of it. Agriteam is sensitive about Monsanto's involvement, said Shumacher. "People like to equate Monsanto with the devil, which I find is grossly unfair."
Modified foods get a roasting
Opinion, Feb. 6.
The Toronto Star February 10, 2001
The Royal Society of Canada's conclusion that it is, "difficult to find funds for research . . ."on testing of genetically modified foods is false. Monsanto and Novartis send millions of dollars to the federal government to gain approval of their crop seed and chemicals for importation into Canada. The funds are to be used for independent testing. Instead, the company's documentation is rubber-stamped and no testing is carried out. Jackie C.