A fresh ear of corn or frankenfood? The struggle to settle this question has been far from democratic, says political scientist Yves Tiberghien - photo by Martin Dee
UBC Reports | Vol. 53 | No. 7 | Jul 5, 2007
GMOs Next Global Lightning Rod Issue
By Lorraine Chan
Our ability to tinker with nature has outstripped our ability to regulate what we create, says Yves Tiberghien, a political scientist who specializes in global regulatory mechanisms for technology and trade.
Consider that almost 70 per cent of the products we buy at the grocery store contain genetically engineered food. Yet we don’t know their long-term impact on our health, the environment, or how they may tip the future balance of power in the global economy.
“Corn and soy are the two main culprits since nearly all processed foods uses ingredients such as corn syrup, corn starch or soy lecithin,” says Tiberghien.
GMO corn and soy first entered into the human food supply in 1996.
“It’s a very big experiment -- 11 years of genetically engineered corn and soy thus far,” observes Tiberghien. “What does this mean? No one really knows.”
Asst. Prof. Tiberghien teaches in the Dept. of Political Science and also heads a Liu Institute for Global Issues research initiative that looks at the global battle over the governance of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Between 2004 and 2006, he conducted 200 interviews with policy makers in Europe, Japan, Korea, and international organization bureaucrats. With further funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Tiberghien is extending this research to Canada and China.
To date, studies conducted on GMOs have found no proof of harm, but the amount of independent data is extremely limited. Tiberghien explains that GMO toxicology testing is carried out by industry, which generally does only what is required to get approval.
Overseeing the companies and labs that produce GMO seeds are national regulatory agencies and international bodies such as the World Trade Organization, the UN, the Codex Alimentarius Commission and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
The present framework is outmoded and rickety, says Tiberghien, with a decision-making process that’s “essentially dominated by industry, the bureaucratic elite and scientific experts without citizens’ participation.”
He says as a society we are making decisions that are irreversible and far reaching, and we are doing it in a way that weakens democracy rather than strengthens it.
“Yes, we want wealth,” says Tiberghien, “but not at any cost. We don’t want to cross red lines where we endanger our health or the environment forever. We also want transparency and accountability.”
Other common GMO foods found at North American stores include canola oil, papayas and soon, rice. But even the most conscientious label-reading shopper wouldn’t be able to detect GMO products. Seed producers argued against mandatory labeling, insisting there was “substantial equivalence,” which means that GMOs provide the same nutrients as conventional crops and shouldn’t be treated differently.
“Industry pushed for this and governments acquiesced,” says Tiberghien.
Since then, civil society mobilization has forced the European Union and Japan to enact more stringent measures, including additional testing and mandatory labeling of GMOs. In turn, the EU seeks to sway other countries to do the same.
Overall, says Tiberghien, tensions are rife between global coalitions and nations, which themselves are fragmented vertically and horizontally over the issue of “frankenfoods.”
“The legitimacy of international and national regulatory bodies is in question. For example, Australia on a national level is pro GMO, yet nine of its 10 states are rabidly anti-GMO and have passed a moratorium on growing GMO crops.”
Tiberghien says India and China are shaping up as the two largest future GMO battlefronts. China, for example, has the second largest GMO research next to the U.S. But bowing to public outcry, both countries now require mandatory labeling for GMOs, while at the same time are pouring millions of dollars into research and development in a bid for technological advances that could alleviate poverty.
“It’s a very unstable situation,” says Tiberghien. “On any given day, there are dozens of confrontations over GMOs taking place around the world.”
By contrast, Canada is relatively quiet with very little media attention on the topic. Compared to 29 OECD countries, Canadians see the least amount of media reporting on GMOs.
“Canadians place a higher trust in the governmental regulatory agencies, which for GMOs is Health Canada.”
He warns, however, that Canada is vulnerable to a backlash that would then catapult the issue into news headlines. Already, public opinion polls in B.C. and Quebec show that 85 per cent of the population support mandatory labeling of GMOs.
“These polls highlight the gap between between citizens’ preferences and existing regulatory outcomes, offering room for groups or individuals to gain political mileage.”
Tiberghien says GMOs could easily become the next climate change, a lightning rod that unites a broad spectrum of protestors as diverse as the anti-globalization movement, organic farmers, Greenpeace supporters, consumer organizations and the Council of Canadians.
An alternative to these pitched battles would be a more democratic process, says Tiberghien, pointing to a citizens assembly as one possible model.
“Imagine 400 citizens who are trained, know the issues and they’re able to give input on regulatory design of GMOs.”