Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Life and Times of BioChica as Told Through GMO Legislation Around the World

As you may know, I'm not American. The spouse and Mr Chubby-Cheeks were born in the US, whereas I was born in Canada. But that's not the whole story: my parents are Iranian who fled the Islamic revolution in 1979 due to their religion, I was born in Canada, raised in Venezuela (which is why I've written about dengue), and I actually met the spouse while working for a year in Israel. I don't know where we'll end up: probably wherever I get decent job offers. Until today, my blog has been very US-centric, but this post will have a more international angle.

This article is about different nations' laws and regulations surrounding GMOs. A common argument that you may read about the dangers of GMOs is how different countries around the world have banned them or have legislation around them. Here's an example from the Non-GMO Project's website:


"Most developed nations do not consider GMOs to be safe. In more than 60 countries around the world, including Australia, Japan, and all of the countries in the European Union, there are significant restrictions or outright bans on the production and sale of GMOs."

You can see how this can lead to a conspiracy theory with the following narrative: GMOs aren't properly tested in the United States. In Europe, scientists have discovered that GMOs can be harmful and they've been banned. But in the US, the FDA is in bed with Monsanto, which is why we're eating these toxic poisons and we aren't being told the truth.

To quote Professor Higgins, it's "so deliciously low, so horribly dirty!" Hence the appeal of this particular conspiracy theory. 

In terms of "bans", there's actually only one country in the world that has an outright ban: Kenya. Recently, there have been calls to lift the ban due to farming losses. 

All other countries have laws and regulations surrounding biotech crops. That includes the United States. There's a reason why you can't just make a transgenic crop and have it sold in stores the following season. So, for the rest of this article, I'm going to look at laws surrounding GMOs in 4 different countries: Canada, Israel, Venezuela and Iran. 

It's the "The Life and Times of BioChica as told Through GMO Legislation Around the World". 

GMO Legislation in Venezuela, Iran, Israel, and Canada
Venezuela: Venezuela's story about GMOs is fascinating (in my biased opinion). To understand Venezuela's stance on GMOs, a bit of a background is needed: Hugo Chavez was elected as Venezuela's president in 1999 and remained in power till his death in 2013. He led a "socialist revolution" that took a very hard anti-American, "anti-imperialist" stance (whatever that means...). As such, much of the policies in the country reflect this attitude. In 2002, Chavez passed a "seed law" which included the establishment of an institute that would oversee the testing, development and research of transgenics. However, in 2004 Chavez made the sudden decision of cancelling a contract with Monsanto, which was about to plant 500,000 acres of GM corn. There was no legal ban, yet no one has planted transgenic crops in Venezuela ever since the incident, which was paired with Chavez's public statement: "the people of the United States, of Latin America and the world, should follow the example of Venezuela and be free of transgenics.”

However, Venezuela relies very heavily on imports and food shortages have become increasingly common the last decade and have hit an all-time high in the last 1-2 years. Two of Venezuela's biggest import partners are Argentina and Brazil, who also happen to be global leaders in the number of acres dedicated to transgenic crops. Despite the fact that Venezuela needs a dramatic increase in food production to meet the demands of its growing population, it plans to pass a law that will straight-out ban growing GMOs.

Here's where it gets interesting. This story comes from Dr Felix Moronta (@morontafelix) who generously gave me permission to translate the story from his website. A recent study published in a regional journal examined 12 Venezuelan corn growers in 2011: 10 were government owned and 2 were privately owned, and these represented 70% of the corn growers in the country. Using tests that searched for the transgenic protein as well as for transgenic DNA, the authors were able to determine that a government owned company was actually growing transgenic Bt-corn (for more info on Bt-corn and transgenic proteins, please see previous post). The authors were also able to determine that the crop being grown carried a patented trait (transgenic event TC1507). The journal article, as well it's summary by Dr Moronta, ask the government to 'fess up and to clarify their stance. As Dr Moronta eloquently outlines, the government is banning growing and doing research on GMOs, yet they import tons of GM grains and goods, AND they're growing them on the DL. Makes no sense...

I can only conclude that Venezuela's position has NOTHING to do with the safety of transgenics. If it was legitimately about safety, then there would be laws surrounding their import. In reading articles and news stories, the sense that I get is that Venezuela's ban on transgenics seems to be due to 1) sticking it to "imperialist" big-Ag. 2) striving for food sovereignty and 3) removing GM seeds from the equation so that small farmers can be successful in the socialist revolution. However, there's no evidence that the moratorium on growing GMOs has contributed to any of these goals given the devastating food shortages.

Iran: Unfortunately, I can only read Farsi up to a 1st or 2nd grade level at best, so most of this information came through translated material. Only one transgenic crop has been approved for cultivation in Iran: rice. It makes perfect sense: rice is eaten every day in an Iranian household. According to my dad, it's not real food unless it has rice. A form of Bt-rice was approved in 2004, but when President Ahmadinejad took office in 2005, his administration "decided against the release of GM crops". It's important to note that Iran was the first nation to commercialize transgenic rice and this article outlines how Iran had hoped to quickly follow this success with additional crops. There was no ban or legislation against GMOs. Apparently, the decision to drop the commercialization of GMOs was due to the lack of a "biosafety law in the country, and 2) lack of harmonization among different stakeholders (Ministry of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Organization etc.)". However, the Iranian government now feels that a decent biosafety law is now established, and the law's text states that the government should facilitate the release, research, commercialization, etc of GMOs.

Makes sense:  I don't think that international companies based out of the US would be allowed to trade with Iran due to the current sanctions that are in place, so Iran's probably trying to figure out a way to boost food production. Mmmmmmmm... Tahchin made with GM rice... Drool...

Israel: Before I start this section, I've got to tell you something about Israel. It's a desert. It's hot. It can be really dusty. But despite all this, the local fruits and veggies are spectacular (here's Wikipedia's article on agriculture in Israel). There are no GMOs commercialized in Israel, even though the country is a hotbed for research into GMOs. This comes as no surprise considering the interest that the nation has in drought-resistant crops. Apparently, this is due to the fact that a very large portion of Israel's agricultural exports head to the EU, where they are slow to approve transgenic crops for import and have labelling laws as well. As such, growing GMOs might have financial repercussions if the EU were to decide to be more wary of Israeli produce.

I couldn't find the actual text of any laws. If anyone out there knows where I could find them, please let me know.

Canada: This database lists a slew of GMOs that have been approved for cultivation in Canada. Health Canada's website has a great description of the regulatory process to gain approval for cultivation and/or sale of a new crop. When someone is interested in submitting a new crop, they're encouraged to consult with Health Canada beforehand to determine if there are any potential red flags. Then they submit the paperwork and undergo a scientific assessment. Health Canada can request additional information, will summarize it's findings, prepares a ruling, and then posts the information on the Health Canada website. It seems very similar to the process in the US under the FDA.


What struck me when I was doing research for this article, is how little the science of GMOs were mentioned. I didn't find any evidence to support the Non-GMO projects' statement that "most developed countries do not consider GMOs to be safe", albeit I only looked into 4 countries for this article. However, these 4 countries are extremely diverse in terms of economic status and development, as well as their relationship with the US. Despite these differences, I think that the common thread in this article seems to be the fact that laws for and against GMOs are economic or political in nature, and have little to do with safety. If it were genuinely about safety, then they'd ban the import of GMOs and join the ranks of Kenya.

Happy New Year y'all! Or, Feliz Año!

1 comment:

  1. As I understand it, Canada is unique in having the same regulations for all new crop varieties, irrespective of how they are produced. This is what the US Academy of Sciences recommended and, in my humble opinion, is the only rational way to do it.

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