Intervenor: Vol 24. No 3 July - September 1999

"GMOs are dead" but Oncomouse lives

Genetically modified food is becoming a hot issue in Canada at last. We have watched the controversy build in Europe and Asia, but fortunately, Canadians are also now more aware of the proliferation of genetically modified (GM) foods in our stores. In Canada, the federal government has approved growth and sale of approximately 40 GM products, mostly varieties of canola, corn, potatoes and soybeans, engineered to be resistant to pesticides. This allows farmers to use even more pesticides on weeds without damaging the crop, a deplorable agricultural direction. Nor has our government required long-term studies of health and environmental effects, or labelling to identify the products. However, the global picture indicates that the tide may be turning on GM foods.

Europe now has in place a three year moratorium preventing further approvals of GM foods, Japan, Australia and New Zealand are moving to label foods, and major food retailers are phasing out GM products. These include Nestle and Unilever in Europe, Gerber and Heinz in Canada, and even McDonald's in England. The number of markets closing to GM products increases daily. Archer Midland Daniels, a food conglomerate, is now requiring its suppliers to segregate GM from normal crops, so they can supply GM-free products to the market.

In May, 1999, the influential Deutsche Bank, one of Europe's largest banks, advised its thousands of institutional investors not to buy stock in biotechnological companies and to sell stock they currently own. In a report entitled "GMOs are Dead" bank analysts stated that the products "will now be perceived as a pariah" and they recommend sale of seed sector stocks. They state that GMOs are becoming a liability to farmers, and that non-GM products are now likely to bring higher prices than GM ones. The Bank pointed out that food retailers have no intention of "taking the bullet" for GM crops; they will not accept liability if crops delivered to them contain GMOs due to intermingling of pollen or normal and GM crops in the field. Together with reports from the US of disappointing yields from GM crops there, these developments spell a major change in the industry's headlong rush to adopt these crops.

The patenting of life forms by biotechnological companies is an international controversy related to GM food production. In Canada, patents are granted for single-celled life forms (including human cells) but not for multicellular life forms. The Harvard Oncomouse case, currently in the courts, will be the test case on the issue. Harvard has been refused a patent for its "oncomouse", genetically engineered to develop cancer, as well as for all non-human mammals that might be similarly engineered in the future, "from a shrew to a whale", as one lawyer puts it. CELA has obtained intervenor status in the Federal Court of Appeal to present the relevant public interest arguments to the court.

In our written materials, CELA has informed the Court of the provisions of the Convention on Biological Diversity, signed and ratified by Canada, which reflect a global concern for the protection of biodiversity, much of which exists in Southern countries. Biotechnology companies argue that patenting, which grants exclusive ownership of a life form, is a necessary spur to research. CELA, therefore, has argued to the Court that it may interfere with equitable access to the benefits of biodiversity, an issue that is causing considerable international controversy.

In addition, patenting, a spur to biotechnology, may lead to increased environmental and human health hazards such as: interbreeding of the GM organisms with other species, and the transfer of modified traits to other species; the production of pesticide-resistant "superweeds;" the reduction in usefulness of the biological pesticide bacillus thuringensis due to its proliferation in the environment in GM crops, and resulting increased insect resistance; the transfer of allergens from one food to another, as with a Brazil nut gene in soybeans; and the possible extinction of diverse indigenous species and their replacement by dominant GM ones.

Another issue related to patenting these life forms is whether it will contribute to increased animal suffering, through the production of species such as the oncomouse, and whether an increased commodification and objectification of living species will contribute to a diminished respect for life.

Further, CELA argues for the public interest in free and unfettered exchange of the results of scientific research, a value now at risk due to increased commercialization of research, non-disclosure agreements, and the treatment of research results as "proprietary" (including for purposes of patenting).

In conclusion, CELA argues that the Patent Act was not intended to cover living species, and that the decision of whether to extend it should be taken by Parliament, after a full discussion by the public. Parliament would be able to decide whether such a step should entail ethical and environmental reviews, other public protections of the rights of farmers and scientists, provisions for the protection of animals, and possible compulsory licensing of products deemed to be in the public interest.

We expect that the case will be heard during the coming winter.

The market reversals and world-wide controversies regarding patenting of GM plants and animals suggest that Monsanto and Novartis will be facing increasing barriers to proliferation of these products in the coming months. Now we have the task of forcing the Canadian government to face up to its health and environmental protection obligations to Canadians.
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Michelle Swenarchuk is the International Programme director at CELA