Green groups rip CFIA’s SmartStax approval

Greenpeace, the Council of Canadians and a number of groups have lined up to criticize what they call the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s “irresponsible rubber-stamping” of a new multiple-trait, genetically-modified corn.

Seed and chemical firms Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences announced July 20 that CFIA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had approved their new corn seed trait combo, called SmartStax, including traits for resistance to insect pests as well as the companies’ Roundup Ready and Liberty Link genetics.

“You’d think that a combination of eight (genetically engineered) traits would trigger an environmental assessment but the CFIA has no public record of their evaluation,” said Lucy Sharratt, co-ordinator of the Ottawa-based Canadian Biotechnology Action Network.

The groups said CFIA has “also failed to provide a rationale for (its) decision to reduce environmental stewardship requirements.”

Specifically, they said, CFIA has reduced the refuge area requirements from 20 per cent to five per cent for growing SmartStax corn.

Monsanto and Dow said last week that the EPA’s and CFIA’s decisions will allow reduction of the typical structured farm refuge “from 20 per cent to five per cent for SmartStax in the U.S. Corn Belt and in Canada, and from 50 per cent to 20 per cent in the U.S. Cotton Belt,” the companies said.

Farmers who grow corn with the genetically modified Bt trait for insect resistance are required to set aside a refuge area within a quarter-mile of a Bt field. The refuge is an area planted with non-Bt corn in order to delay the development of insect resistance to Bt, the groups said.

“Not only has CFIA failed to evaluate the environmental risks of this eight-trait GE corn, it has also dramatically reduced one of its only environmental requirements in the field,” Sharratt said in Friday’s release.

“Insect resistance is inevitable, it’s just a matter of time and the reduction of refuge for this new GE corn will simply speed this evolution,” said Eric Darier, a Montreal-based campaigner on agricultural issues for Greenpeace Canada.

“Wolf in charge”

CFIA said in a statement Wednesday on its website that it had evaluated the “potential impact on and risk to the environment of using a five per cent non-Bt refuge strategy for this product, and has concluded that a conditional authorization until Dec. 31, 2012, of the use of this refuge poses minimal risk to the environment.”

During the interim authorization, Monsanto and Dow are “required to conduct field evaluation of corn rootworm adaptation to this product, including monitoring of actual emergence of susceptible and resistant corn rootworm adults in the field,” CFIA said.

Greenpeace’s Darier retorted Friday that CFIA “relying on Monsanto and Dow to monitor the success or failure of reduced environmental stewardship” is “like putting the wolf in charge of the sheep’s welfare.”

CFIA said Wednesday that the combination of events in SmartStax corn, using an “appropriately designed five per cent refuge, is expected to provide better long-term effectiveness than current single-event Bt corn products in the Canadian marketplace.”

However, the agency said, “continued diligence on the part of technology developers, federal and provincial government representatives, public sector researchers and growers is required to ensure the continued stewardship of Bt corn products in support of sustainable agricultural practices in the long term.”

Maureen Bostock, an organic farmer from Balderson, southwest of Ottawa, and a board member with the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario, said in the greeen groups’ release that topical applications of the Bt microorganism on horticultural crops are common practice among organic farmers. 

“Organic farmers have warned since the beginning that we could lose this useful tool if insect resistance were to build up,” she said Friday. “What’s the CFIA’s basis for reducing the refuge area? Surely our government has considered the consequences for farmers over the long term?”

Furthermore, “the synchronized approval of (SmartStax) by the Canadian and U.S. governments is a dangerous sign of increased harmonization above any other environmental or social considerations,” said Stuart Trew, trade campaigner at the Council of Canadians, in the green groups’ release.

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