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Biotechnology Malfeasance


Below is a submission that I made to CBAC. This was a cynical process that was dressed up as a public consultation but was in fact a 'pro-forma' exercise to rubber-stamp a decision already made without public input. As it turned out, public consultation showed that the public was near universally opposed to the legislation contemplated and ultimately passed. 

Comments on the document: Interim Report of the Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee to the Biotechnology Ministerial Coordinating Committee

The original source of the document reviewed was here: http://www.cbac-cccb.ca/documents/GMenglish.pdf. This has since been removed. However, I found what appears to be the same document archive here: http://publications.gc.ca/collections/Collection/C2-589-2001E.pdf


About me:

I make my living as a software developer and researcher. I have a Bachelor of Science degree (major in Biology). I have no particular vested interest here, other than as a member of the public. I hold a scientific world-view similar to 'the received view of science'. I am somewhat biased in favor of scientific advancement. I am hardly a 'tree-hugger', or an 'eco-nut'.

My concern with respect to the matter at hand is grounded in my understanding of the following:

a)       The opportunistic nature of biological organisms and evolution
b)       The geometric growth of living populations
c)       The insular nature of bureaucracies
d)       How lobby groups influence the public agenda
e)       Intellectual property issues
f)        How answers depend on the particular questions asked

Additionally, I did a little research to look at what others are saying about the various issues involved and looked at some news stories surrounding specific related events.

General Comments:

The CBAC document surveys many different aspects of the subject at hand. Some valid points are raised and an effort has been made to make the document at least seem inclusive. However, the document seems lacking in some important ways. I feel the following are flaws that should be addressed in a final draft:

1)       The potential for catastrophe is not properly treated in this document, even though this is really the heart of the matter. This appears to stem from a misunderstanding of the distinction between biological material and non-biological material. Living things migrate, self-replicate, interbreed and evolve. Current technology can not cure the common cold or safely rid my lawn of weeds. What does this say about our preparedness to deal with a virulent biological threat?
2)       Important recommendations and feedback regarding caution and safety concerns are buried in the report and appear to be 'soft-pedaled'.
3)       Trivial concerns and considerations are presented as if they are equal to very important concerns. This is particularly true with respect to safety, sustainability and public welfare.
4)       Liability issues are ignored entirely.
5)       "Transparency" is dealt with in an abstract way but it is unclear that the process has been effectively transparent. Cursory research shows that the document in question is not a balanced reflection of the views of all stakeholders.
6)       The problems inherent in current intellectual property legislation are not adequately dealt with. See the appalling decision by the federal court here: [Note original is no longer on the web, but archive.org has a copy here: https://web.archive.org/web/20011218034107/http://decisions.fct-cf.gc.ca/fct/2001/2001fct256.html] [original no longer available was: http://decisions.fct-cf.gc.ca/fct/2001/2001fct256.html.] I am certain that informed Canadians would object to this outcome. The judge's decision is soundly based on principles of law. However, the legislative framework and precedent surrounding this is bad.
7)       The uncontrolled spread of biotech material, equipment and expertise might lead to deliberately created bio-weapons. The report does not address the issue at all.
8)       Specific examples from past experience are missing. There is no mention, for instance, of StarLink. Why not?

My general impression of the document is that it is heavily influenced by partisans whose aim is to allow GM, GE products to enter our biosphere for profit. This is troubling in the extreme. It is only at this point in time that we will have the opportunity to decide whether or not it makes sense to let the genie out of the bottle. Once it is out, we may not be able to put it back in. The CBAC document ought to be more balanced and forthright in presenting the issues and recommendations.

Here is what I would like to see:

1)       Get some real biologists involved. We are talking about living things here. They differ markedly from non-living things. It is clear from the content of the document that there is a profound lack of understanding of the importance of the mechanisms of both biological evolution and ecology. GM foods absolutely do not belong under the umbrella of 'novel foods'.
2)       Ban FrankenFoods not already approved.
3)       Mandate proper liability insurance coverage for FrankenFoods in use.
4)       Mandate proper liability insurance coverage for research facilities.
5)       Mandate a "Roll-back" plan. Any FrankenFood introduction should have a back-out strategy that completely undoes the introduction. This includes the costs of removing the mutant material from the ecosystem and repairing any damage done. If you can't afford the cost of the insurance, you can't afford to do it.
6)       Place proper, conservative legislation around FrankenFoods in use.
7)       Fund research to assess risks properly.
8)       Legislate safety standards for research such that material used by and generated by research activities can not escape into the environment. This should include controls on access to advanced equipment and materials that could be used to develop biological weaponry.
9)       Fund an advocacy group to persuade other entities (nations, multinationals) to refrain from doing anything that will place their GM, GE products from crossing our borders.
10)   Legislate severe penalties for vested interest parties found to subvert the process of this public debate. This should include jail time, disgorgement and punitive damages. "Whistle blower" legislation would be good and perhaps bounties to ensure that there is some incentive in place to find and prosecute those who would injure the public good.

Specific comments regarding document content:

Re: 8.1 "The Panel recommends the precautionary regulatory assumption that, in general, new technologies should not be presumed safe unless there is a reliable scientific basis for considering them safe. The Panel rejects the use of “substantial equivalence” as a decision threshold to exempt new GM products from rigorous safety assessments on the basis of superficial similarities because such a regulatory procedure is not a precautionary assignment of the burden of proof".

The quote above appears on page 63. It should be right up front, stated more plainly and should be the central thrust of the report. I believe that these technologies should be assumed unsafe and banned initially.

Re: Section 5.4: "This does not imply, however, a zero-risk approach. … Under circumstances where it is appropriate to use substantial equivalence as a framework to structure the safety assessment of novel foods, it is necessary to ascertain whether the composition of the plant has been changed in any way. "

When we are talking about potential catastrophic failure of our environment, our food supply and life itself, I would say that a 'zero-risk' strategy is the only acceptable standard. Is there a reputable biologist not co-opted by the bio-tech industry that accepts 'substantial equivalence' as a meaningful concept? I do not accept the 'substantial equivalence' concept at all.

There is no discussion of how liability will be dealt with. Say a particular FrankenFood vector wipes out a vital food species, kills scores of people, is responsible for genetic infirmities in people or livestock, destroys eco-systems, etc, etc. Who pays? Should we not work to establish this? I would like to see a comprehensive liability insurance scheme in place. It should be funded by all FrankenFood beneficiaries. It should absolutely cover any and all liabilities arising from the introduction of FrankenFoods into our ecosystems.

Re: "The sessions were designed to achieve a balance of representation from the general public, society, industry, research and academia. However, some representatives from civil society, primarily environmental nongovernmental organizations, chose not to participate, thus diminishing the representation of this group. "

This discussion, as framed by CBAC, has been similar in kind to a discussion about a regulatory framework that assumes the exploitation of children. You start with the assumption that something unthinkable will be done. We are now talking about the mechanics of legislation. It is fairly clear from your document that you do not have the benefit of the following point of view: GM, GE foods could be exceedingly dangerous on a scale that makes their introduction unthinkable at this point in time.

It is troubling that we are blithely discussing a 'regulatory framework' for FrankenFoods. Due to the actions of large integrated companies in the food industry and regulatory failures of other political jurisdictions, we may be obliged to accept FrankenFoods. However, this should be specifically addressed as such ("this is why we are forced to…") and strategies to combat this should be examined.

Re: "The petition presented by these representatives, as well as CBAC’s response, can be found on the CBAC Web site".

I could not find it there. In fact, it took a while to track it down here:


I was troubled by the fact that the response seemed to be tangential to the questions raised and appeared to be carefully avoiding the substance of the petition itself. Even though I had not read the original petition, a careful reading of the response led to the conclusion that the response was meant only to deflect the petition. The response ignored the substance of the petition. Here is where I found the petition itself.


It is chilling to read both the petition and the government response. It is equally chilling that such a substantive treatment of the issues CBAC should be addressing is dealt with in such an off-hand way in the CBAC document. It is curious that you say 'can be found on the CBAC Web site', but do not offer the location in your document.

"CBAC will take into account the feedback from Phase 3 to produce its final report and formal recommendations on the regulation of GM foods."

What does the above actually mean? My cursory inspection of available sources on the internet show that for the most part observers who do not have a vested interest in bio-technology universally disagree with the headlong rush to embrace GM foods. It would be difficult to get that message from a reading of the current report as proposed by CBAC. CBAC seems to already be in the 'pro bio-tech' camp. To the extent that arguments respecting caution are acknowledged, the posture of the document tends toward condescension and the 'handling' of objections.

"This report will be delivered to government in early 2002".

This report and any legislation pertaining to GM foods should definitely be debated in the House of Commons. Hopefully the final report will be a little less cynical, contain a little more substance and address the unique biological issues involved with GM foods.

The reports referral to the 'novel food' concept is troubling. It conveys a lack of understanding of the very unique specific dangers presented by GM foods. These dangers transcend the dangers of an otherwise 'novel' food. I do not worry that a novel source of fiber in the food supply will go on to destroy the ecosystem, create a new virus or pest, end up being incorporated into the genome of my children, etc. The ultimate danger of GM foods is to collapse the ecosystems upon which life itself depends. To blithely insist that GM foods are comfortably on a peer basis with other novel foods is to miss the point entirely. Whatever the likelihood of risks involved with GM foods, those risks are potentially catastrophic. A novel packaging that subsequently turns out to poison, kill and maim might get a couple million of us at worst. GM foods could potentially kill us all.

Re: "Scientists developing products of biotechnology do their work in labs, growth chambers and/or greenhouses. In these settings, the products are contained and should not come in contact with the environment. These activities are not currently regulated under the federal system. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research have guidelines for working with genetically modified organisms. Most research institutions — both public and private — also have their own codes of conduct and oversight committees for biotechnology research."

Right. We need regulations that clearly enforce the requirement that GM material does not escape. Further, we need to address liabilities and put in place the financial infrastructure to deal with any breaches that impact human welfare.

Re: "This means that plants produced through biotechnology are grown under conditions aimed at preventing the transfer of pollen to other plants; they are monitored by the experimenter and CFIA field inspection staff; and the trial site is subject to post-harvest, land-use restrictions and further monitoring."

Have these methods not failed to achieve their purpose in the past? Why does your report not specifically address these instances and give an analysis of the dangers posed? Current techniques of sequestering GM plants and the legislation governing this are both wholly inadequate in my opinion.

Re: "The question of commercial secrecy also arises in the debate over the government’s transparency. The desire of companies to maintain the confidentiality of data or information that they consider “commercially sensitive” has some impact on the degree of detail the regulator can provide in communicating information to the public. It also raises the question of who should determine what is commercially sensitive information".

If commercial interests make a pact with the Devil to arrive at their FrankenFood, we need to know. Absolute disclosure should be mandatory with proper peer review and the opportunity for interested parties to comment intelligently. Informed consent is an absolute must. How can we give informed consent to something about which we know only partial details?

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