Whose Side Are We On?

By Tom Sandborn | June 3, 2005

Last week Canada was at the center of a storm of global protest on a biodiversity issue for the second time this year, this time accused of abusing its visa-granting process in order to undermine an important United Nations meeting. Earlier this year critics accused Canadian delegates to a UN meeting in Bangkok of trying to open the regulatory door to commercial use of the highly contentious “terminator/suicide seed” technology.

The current controversy arose when international observers concerned about biodiversity, safety and liability issues surrounding genetically modified organisms (GMOs) learned that our embassy in Ethiopia and our High Commission in Kenya had mysteriously delayed the issuing of a visa to Dr. Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher.

The delay meant Dr. Tewolde, one of Africa’s leading scientists and diplomats and recipient in 2000 of the prestigious Right Livelihood Award for his work on genetically modified crops and the rights of farmers, arrived two days late for a three day United Nations meeting on bio-safety being held in Montreal. Dr. Tewolde has played a key role in earlier United Nations meetings on the issues related to new agricultural technologies, and is widely viewed as the negotiator most responsible for the creation of the Cartagena BioSafety Protocol being discussed at the Montreal meeting. Widely respected in scientific and diplomatic circles, the Ethiopian scientist has fought to make UN policies on genetically modified foods address the concerns of developing nations.

Some critics labeled the delay in his visa as a conscious attempt to silence one of the Third World’s most eloquent and effective advocates of caution in handling the new agricultural creations some are calling “FrankenFoods”.

“Dr. Tewolde is one of the most respected scientists in his field,” said Pat Mooney, Executive Director of Ottawa’s ETC group, a Canadian-based international civil society organization with observer status at the UN, in a press release dated May 18. “If the Canadian government can’t make sure Dr. Tewolde has his visa for the opening of the meetings, Canada does not deserve to host the Convention on Biological Diversity.” (Montreal has served since the creation of the CBD in 1995 as the headquarters for this UN body dedicated to protecting the earth’s living diversity.)

Mooney said in a May 30 phone interview that his office has been flooded with calls from around the world since ETC first drew attention to the problems with Dr. Tewolde’s visa.

“We heard from a diplomat in Sweden, an anthropologist in the Yucatan, and from outraged scientists and diplomats around the world and across Canada on this question. When Dr. Tewolde finally arrived at the Montreal meeting on Friday, he was greeted by a standing ovation from the attendees. We can’t say with certainty, of course, whether the visa delay was a deliberate attempt by Canada to block Dr. Tewolde’s participation, but if it was, it backfired. There are those in industry and a few countries who don’t want corporations to be held accountable, and at times like these it looks as if Canada has signed on for the corporate agenda, following the same path as the US. In the Pearson and Trudeau years, Canada had wide international respect. Now the global mood in biodiversity circles is ‘What the hell is Canada doing?’ Bankok and the attempt to lift the Terminator moratorium hurt Canada’s position.”

The public outcry about the way the Canadian embassy handled Dr. Tewolde’s visa application is a disturbing echo of similar protests heard earlier this year when Canada’s delegation to a regulatory meeting in Bankok were accused of a stealth attempt to end a UN-mandated moratorium on the commercial development of the highly controversial Terminator Seed technologies, which force farmers to buy high-cost patented seed every year and sabotage their ability to continue the centuries-old practice of saving seed from one crop to plant for the next year’s season. Terminator seeds, also known at GURTS or “genetic use restriction technologies,” are sterile in the second generation, so the farmer is compelled to buy a new supply each year from powerful multi-nationals who hold the GURTS patents.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International trade, Marie Christine Lilkoff, said in a May 27 telephone interview that the department would not be commenting directly on the particulars of the Tewolde case, out of concerns for the scientist’s privacy. However, she did provide a more general statement on policy:

“Every case is assessed on a case-by-case basis. All foreign nationals are assessed using standards that do not discriminate on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion or sex. The safety of the Canadian public is a priority. In assessing immigrant and temporary resident visa applications, one of the many factors considered is whether the person may be a threat to Canada’s security. If that’s the case, the individual is inadmissible.”

However, at the Montreal meeting, according to Greenpeace campaigner Eric Darier, contacted in a phone interview May 30, Canadian government representatives were referring to Dr. Tewolde’s visa problems apologetically as an “administrative error” and promising the error would not be repeated. Darier was unimpressed by this spin control effort, pointing out that at least four other Third World delegates accredited to the UN meeting had been denied Canadian visas and missed the current GMO deliberations.

“It is outrageous for Canada to use a so called administrative error to pursue their agenda and exclude people from the South who are critical of Canada and its support of dangerous American policy. Greenpeace has recently shown that shipments of Canadian canola to Japan have led to GMO contamination in areas around the ports where the Canadian crops are off loaded. Canada is responsible for this contamination. Canada not only hasn’t ratified the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol, but it seems to be using the fact the CBD Secretariat is in Montreal to undermine the Protocol.

Percy Schmeiser, the Saskatchewan farmer who said his fields, were involuntarily contaminated by GMO crops, and was the subject of a ruinous court case launched by Monsanto, the biotech giant that holds the patent on the grain species found in the Schmeiser fields, was at the Montreal meeting last week. He shares the concerns voiced by Greenpeace’s Darier.

“GMO’s are dangerous. There is no such thing as co-existence with them. This is a disgrace. I’m ashamed of Canada. The liability and labeling issues to be discussed here are crucial for Third World farmers. It is vital to have people like Dr. Tewolde here. His delay was not an accident. It was a deliberate attempt to keep a diplomat out of Canada.”

If it was a deliberate attempt, it was unsuccessful. Dr. Tewolde, thanks to public protests, finally got his visa and was able to attend the last day of the three-day meeting slated for May 25, 26, 27, and will remain in Montreal for a second set of UN meetings that will address issues of labeling and identification of GMO materials.

Currently, in Canada, Greenpeace’s Darier estimates that up to 70% of all processed foods contain genetically modified materials, and no labeling is required, either for retail sale in country or for shipments off shore. Canada is one of the world’s largest producers of genetically modified crops, together with the US and Argentina. Meanwhile, some scientists in the US have recently reported research that ties GMO foods in lab and field tests to stomach lesions in rats, false pregnancies in cattle and excessive cell growth and damage to animal immune systems. “We believe the current versions of genetically modified crops are unsafe…they should be banned,” said Jeffrey Smith, director of the Institute for Responsible Technology in a speech to the Association of Official Analytical Communities in Kansas City last week.

We may be eating our way towards GMO induced stomach lesions, our government policies may help multinationals bully small farmers around the world, and we may be, increasingly, a source of dismay in the scientific and diplomatic worlds. But at least our alert embassy staffers are hard at work screening out inconvenient scientists and their unsettling opinions from our shores.

Oh, Canada, indeed!

1346 w.  June 3, 2005


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