Intervenor: Vol 24. No 3 July - September 1999

Canada's Heavy Handed Trade Negotiations

While we Canadians like to see ourselves as peace-keepers and masters of "quiet diplomacy" our trade representatives are damaging Canada's reputation abroad by heavy-handed trade negotiations. Let's consider two subject areas, investment rules and genetically modified foods.

Canada was a big promoter of the international investment rules negotiated as the Multilateral Agreement on Investment at the OECD. Wide-spread criticism led by non-governmental organizations caused other governments to terminate the negotiations. But Canada never wavered in supporting the agreement. Under similar investment rules in NAFTA, Canada now faces several hundred million dollars (US) in claims by corporations who say that Canadian environmental laws have cost them money. These claims follow the suit by Ethyl Corporation that led Ottawa's to rescind a ban on MMT, a nerve-toxin in gasoline, and to pay the polluter (Ethyl) $20 million. This year, Canada tried and failed to win renegotiations of NAFTA investment rules, so we're stuck with them. Why on earth would Ottawa now support entrenching the same rules for 134 countries at the WTO?

Canada is also a major promoter of genetically modified (GM) foods, including canola (modified to be resistant to herbicide, allowing farmers to use even more herbicide), corn and potatoes. The government has approved the growth and sale of GM foods without long term safety studies, and without labelling to identify them to consumers. It subsidizes the biotechnology industry with hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

A government website tells us that until 1997, Canadian GM canola was segregated from normal canola, but the industry then decided to end segregation. However, since Europe hasn't approved GM canola, Canada lost the EU market to non-GM canola from the US. This was not a brilliant business strategy. Now, instead of reinstituting segregation, the Canadian grain industry says it's impossible, (although it was possible before) and wants to force the EU to accept GM canola.

At the same time, the tables are turning against GM foods. There's a three-year moratorium on approvals in Europe. Australia, New Zealand and Japan have new labelling requirements. Many giant food retailers are now phasing out GM foods. Deutsche Bank, one of Europe's largest, is advising thousands of major institutional investors not to invest in biotechnology companies. Archer Daniels Midland, a huge agricultural conglomerate, is telling its suppliers to segregate GM products. You would think Ottawa would see the writing on the wall. But no, Agriculture Minister Van Clief is adamant that Europe must accept GM canola.

There's more. Recently, Ottawa led six agricultural exporting countries in causing the collapse of UN-led talks for a Biosafety Protocol for safe trade in GM products. This Protocol was mandated by the Convention on Biological Diversity, an environmental treaty (which Canada signed and ratified) that ensures green safeguards are in place, see related information below.

Genetically modified living organisms entail many risks, including: production of pesticide-resistant "superweeds," genetic pollution of indigenous plant species, transfers of allergens not known to the consumer (as in soybeans that contain Brazil nut genes), displacement of traditional ecologically-sound agriculture and increased pesticide use. However, Canadian trade officials are not respectful of the concerns raised by Southern and European governments, and by informed citizens, about these risks.

At one negotiation session for the Biosafety Protocol, an American official said to a Canadian environmental scientist, "If you think this is about the environment, you're the only one here who does. This is about trade." The statement reflects the attitudes of Canadian trade officials as well. When asked why Canada is actively subverting these negotiations, a senior environment official at DFAIT said bluntly, "We're exporters."

There's more still. On health issues, Canada is attempting to foist hormone-laced beef products and asbestos on Europeans. So much for environmental protection and concern for human health. Ottawa's policies on all of these complex public interests can be summed up in two words. "We're exporters" (and damn the rest).

The aggressive, arrogant demeanour of our trade officials, and their overt role as a mouthpiece for US interests, are being widely criticized at international meetings. An Asian delegate at the biosafety meetings said to me, "Canada used to be such a positive influence at the UN. What's happened?"

Whatever it is, it's embarrassing to be a Canadian at international meetings.

Michelle Swenarchuk is the International Programme director at CELA

Further Reading ...
Ingeborg Boyens, How Corporate Science is Secretly Alterning Our Food, Doubleday.
Wayne Roberts et al, Real Food for a Change, Random.