A recent report on genetically engineered crops by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine received a great deal of media attention for its conclusion that such crops are safe for consumption. Proponents have seen this report as a victory over the anti-GE movement, but the scientific evidence affirming the safety of GE crops has been established for some time.
The fixation on health implications in popular debate has distracted from the real issues: the way that technology and agricultural practices contribute to the commodification of seed production and the corporatization of Canada’s food system. Successive governments have deepened these issues, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau doesn’t appear to be an exception, given his support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a regional trade deal that will compromise a wide array of factors that support food sovereignty.
You wouldn’t know it by following the story on Twitter, but the National Academies report offers a rather mixed perspective on GE technology. Basically, it says that GE crops pose no greater risk and offer no added nutritional benefits than those bred through conventional means. Further, GE technology does not seem to significantly increase crop yields — so GE crops may not actually be able to “feed the world.”
The report suggests that persistent support for GE technology in public institutions is the result of the encroachment of multinational agribusiness funding and collaboration. There are ongoing debates over the use of private funding to secure intellectual property rights, which crowd out public interest research and knowledge sharing about GE technology. This raises questions concerning the use of public research resources to develop technologies that eventually become patented by private enterprise, which ultimately moves wealth away from producers and concentrates it in the accounts of multinational corporations.
The story not told in the media concerns the social and economic impacts of GE technology. The report suggests it is unclear whether this technology financially benefits farmers. Increased prices may limit access, and many farmers say they have fewer seed choices. It’s also illegal for farmers to save GE seed, and non-GE growers have to protect themselves against the entry of GE seed from another property in order to avoid violating intellectual property rights.
Seed sovereignty means democratic control and common ownership of seed varieties, which have increasingly become threatened worldwide due to the use of GE technology, among other factors.
The overwhelming fixation on GE technology, however, as the core problem in our food systems directs attention away from the diverse factors resulting in the loss of seed sovereignty. The commodification of the seed commons and the resulting loss of seed diversity has come even from policies that have nothing to do with GE crops.
The Agricultural Growth Act, which included significant concessions to multinational agribusiness, became law last winter under the Harper government and Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz. It amended the federal Plant Breeders’ Rights Act, bringing it in alignment with the most recent international convention on plant breeders’ rights (UPOV 1991).
Multinational seed companies can now claim plant breeder rights over non-patented plant cultivars in Canada and then charge end-point royalties from farmers who save the seeds, suing those who fail to pay. Furthermore, the act permits companies to withdraw plant breeder rights over a cultivar before the end of the claim’s 20-year term instead of releasing it into the public domain, then claim rights to a slightly modified version of the cultivar.
The TPP threat
The Agricultural Growth Act was ultimately a condition for Canada’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a regional trade deal that will compromise a wide array of factors that support food sovereignty.
However, the deregulation of seed production in Canada has been taking place since the 1970s, when the technology was introduced amid the rise of neoliberal governments seeking to integrate and marketize food systems globally. The globalization and corporatization of Canada’s food system has resulted in the deference of regulation to agribusiness, with less and less public consultation.
Under the Harper government, lack of transparency in the approval of agricultural technology and hostility to opponents resulted in a chill among farmer and food sovereignty organizations.
Approval for the transgenic Arctic apple, which is engineered so its flesh does not turn brown when exposed to air, took place with very little public knowledge. The bruise- and blight-resistant GE Innate potato did not qualify for approval by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in 2016, but will likely get the green light next year. The sudden approval of transgenic salmon and the imminent approval for GE alfalfa, which has faced heavy opposition for its propensity towards genetic drift, demonstrates that the situation has not improved all that much under the Trudeau government and Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAuley.
If the government’s commitment to regional free trade agreements and the deregulation of seed production remains the same, the food sovereignty legacy of the Trudeau government may not be any better than Harper’s.
Our collective seed commons
A growing list of organizations have stressed the importance of agroecological solutions to food production, which means focusing on managing ecological processes to produce more intensive yields in smaller spaces.
This includes USC Canada, the National Farmers Union, Food Secure Canada, and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. USC Canada, for instance, has demonstrated that empowering farmer capacity to breed locally appropriate crop varieties has contributed to greater social and ecological resilience to environmental change.
Globally, La Via Campesina — represented in Canada by the National Farmers Union — is a successful movement that combines opposition to multinational agribusiness with the promotion of agroecological practices around the world.
Rather than focusing on the food safety concerns posed by GE technology, Canadians need to question the politics of GE technology and related production practices that contribute to the loss of seed sovereignty, which compromises the power that consumers and farmers have over how their food is made.
GE technology may not pose an evident risk for consumption, but it does significantly disempower society from preserving seed diversity and democratic access to our common seed heritage. We need to recognize that agroecological practices offer greater promise to bring about a just and sustainable food system.
The government of Canada needs to dedicate greater support for agroecology-oriented seed breeding and the protection of our collective seed commons if we hope to achieve food sovereignty.