Canada visa refusal stokes biotech controversy

Related tags Genetically modified organism Genetically modified food Consumer protection Gm

Canada's failure to grant a key biotechnology expert a visa in
order for him to attend this week's Cartagena Biosafety Protocol
meeting has angered activists, writes Anthony Fletcher.

"If the Canadian government does not resolve this issue immediately it will raise questions on their impartiality,"​ said Anna Fielder, developed and transition economies director of consumer rights pressure group Consumer International.

Organisation spokesperson Julia Crosfield told​ that the refusal of Canada to admit Dr.Tewolde Egziabher, a major participant in the global biotech debate, should place the country's ability to host an international conference of this stature in doubt.

The Cartagena Biosafety Protocol, which was signed in 2000 and came into force in 2003, aims to ensure an adequate level of protection in the field of the safe transfer, handling and use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) resulting from modern biotechnology. However Canada, one of the five biggest producers of GM crops, has never ratified the protocol.

About 800 representatives from around the world are due for the second round of negotiations from 25 May to 3 June. In contrast to the stance of many North American biotech companies and interest groups, Dr. Egziabher is a strong supporter of bulk labeling of GM food and state liability.

He believes that countries that export GM crops should be liable if there is any contamination or damage of other crops.

These are some of the issues that will be debated upon during the meeting. Consumers International​ say that it is vital Dr. Egziabher is there in order for there to be a proper debate.

Most significantly of all, it is likely that the issue of GM labeling will be settled at the Montreal summit.

The labeling issue in Canada goes back to 1999, when the Canadian Food Inspection Agency ruled that food manufacturers could not make any reference to genetically engineered ingredients on their packets until a standard had been drawn up. The pro-labeling lobby hopes that the Montreal summit will enable a standard to be established.

"Dr.Tewolde Egziabher is a key developing countries negotiator at this important meeting on Biosafety taking place in Canada,"​ said Fielder.

"He takes a pro-consumer position and is likely to insist for resolutions on clear labeling of GM commodities and state liability in cases of damage to the environment and/or human beings arising from GMOs."

There is little international consensus on the issue. While the EU requires that all food be tracked and labeled if it contains 0.9 per cent or more traceable GM content, North America does not require the labeling of food derived from genetically engineered plants. Food producers do not need to indicate the method by which plants were produced.

"We are not against GMOs per se, but we want the debate to be conducted responsibly,"​ said Crosfield. "Consumers have a right to information. In the US, the Consumers Association, which has been campaigning for GM labeling, says that 80 to 90 percent of the population want their food to be better-labeled."

Dr. Egziabher is still waiting to hear the final outcome of his visa application.

Consumers International is a federation of consumer organisations dedicated to the protection and promotion of consumer's rights worldwide. It currently represents over 250 organisations in 115 countries.

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