Since writing our first backgrounder, we have continued to research the issues surrounding genetically modified foods, and the legislative options available in the BC context. The issue of GMOs is broad and complex and is tied to many larger questions including: our relationship to our food, the effects of large-scale conventional agriculture on human and animal health and the environment, population growth, global warming, industry funding of science, technological advance and its associated risks, and our ability to ensure a sustainable and secure food supply for the future. It is important to be cognizant of these broader issues in developing a response to GMOs, to ensure a well informed and holistic response that does not have unforeseen adverse consequences. We must also work within the context of BC, using the tools we have at our disposal to most appropriately and effectively respond to the issues and questions associated with GMOs.
Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) share responsibility for food policies on health and safety, regulation, and labelling. The BC Liberal government has said that the responsibility for GM products rests solely with the Federal Government (see here and here and here).
However, in 2001, the BC NDP argued that GM labelling is a consumer information matter, which falls under provincial jurisdiction according to the Constitution Act (1867). During second reading of Bill 18 Genetically-Engineered Food Labelling Act, NDP Attorney General Graeme Bowbrick noted “The province has jurisdiction to legislate on a matter of property and civil rights, which is interpreted to include the authority to legislate with regard to consumer protection and consumer information.”
The Food and Agricultural Products Classification Act (2016) gives the Lieutenant Governor in Council the power to make regulations establishing or adopting certification programs, including making regulations respecting the quality standards of food or agricultural products. However, provincial certification will only apply to operators producing and selling their products within BC; those that sell their produce to other provinces will still require federal certification.
In order to fall within BC’s jurisdiction, the impact of any legislation must only be felt within BC and it must not have the effect of prohibiting or controlling the importation of goods into the province. Otherwise, legislation would infringe upon federal jurisdiction over inter-province trade and commerce and therefore be invalid.
Regarding pesticides, a province may prohibit the use of a registered pesticide, or it may add more restrictive conditions on the use of a product than those established under the Pest Control Products Act. This may provide a relevant parallel for the Province’s ability to restrict GM crops that have been approved Federally, or to impose stricter regulations on the use of GM crops within the province.
The BC NDP estimated that mandatory labelling would cost $11.8 million (in today’s dollars; see Note 1 below), which equals 0.1% of total retail food sales in BC. If implemented, mandatory labelling in BC could result in nation-wide labelling by companies, as is happening in the US, where Vermont labelling legislation (going into effect on July 1st, 2016) has led to large companies – including General Mills, Mars and Kellogg – to label their products nationwide.
Many potential legislative responses to GMOs fall under federal jurisdiction, including the approval and regulation of GM crops for growth and sale in Canada.
In BC, two key responses may be warranted. First, the Ministry of Agriculture could establish a robust tracking and monitoring regime, to track where GM crops are grown in BC, and to pro-actively monitor any actual or potential environmental and agricultural effects of GM crops. The Province does not currently track or monitor GM crops in BC. If any action is warranted, we must first identify and fully understand the scope and impact, if any, of GM crops in our province.
Second, BC should establish an expert panel, made up of independent researchers, to assess the current and potential future impacts of GM agriculture in BC, and to assess the jurisdictional ability, logistics, and costs of implementing mandatory labelling in BC or of increasing the regulation or restriction of GM imports into BC. Independence is important since many studies on GMOs are industry funded, but not all. Some evidence suggests that industry funding systematically biases studies towards favourable outcomes (see Note 2)
So what do you think?
Please continue to share your thoughts on what we should do in BC to address potential or perceived concerns associated with certain GM crops.
Note 1: adjusted 2001 NDP estimate ($9 million) for inflation (BC Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General, Regulatory Impact Statement, April, 2001)
Note 2: Healthy People and Communities—Steering Committee, Multi-Sectoral Partnerships Task Group, 2013: Discussion Paper: Public-Private Partnerships with the Food Industry;
Ayevard, P., D. Yach, A.B.Gilmore, and S. Capewell, 2016: Should we welcome food industry funding of public health research? The BMJ, 2016, 353:i2161. doi: 10.1136/bmj.i2161.