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Feeding the future: A Canadian standoff

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Thursday, May 29, 2014

Terry Soleas

Genome Canada presented a draft brief that they have been refining as a part of their GE3LS (Genomics and its Ethical, Environmental, Economic, Legal and Social aspects) Series at Congress 2014 entitled  “Feeding the Future: Can Scientists, Regulators and Activists agree?”. Genome Canada is a not-for-profit organization founded in 2000 to administer and foster large-scale genomics research in Canada. Thus far, Genome Canada has invested 2.3 billion dollars in Canadian research in fields such as biotechnology, horticulture, energy, mining, and many others in the fields of life science.

The brief is in response to the ongoing debate over food science and its permeation of the world food market with the goal of creating an efficient regulatory system. Scientists find the process of gaining approval for their research arduous. Some of the public finds the idea of tinkering with what we eat unsettling. Health Canada is stuck in the middle trying to get a consensus of all the stakeholders.

The brief itself presents the views of stakeholders disagreeing with the current primacy of science in regulation among many other perspectives. With a rebuttal that more effective use of science advice will reduce science-related crises of public confidence. Further calls were made for avoiding reactionary models in favour of proactive models that provide needed oversight before large scale calamities.  

The agreement of the brief is that consensus is nigh impossible, but a healthy dialogue and exchange of perspectives is to the benefit of all stakeholders.

Alexandra Grygorczyk, a research scientist from the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre presented the research perspective that equally thorough and rigorous evidence should be the standard for demonstrating benefit or harm in novel products.

Eric Montpetit, the Chair of the political science department at the University of Montréal, presented the policy perspective and argued that a perfectly good system of oversight exists- “Responsible Government”. However he argues that Ministry officials do not take responsibility for their decisions and often place the blame at the feet of industry to avoid taking responsibility. Furthermore, as scientists disagree among themselves as much as other parties disagree with each other, it is a tall order to expect others to embrace the findings of a polarized science community.

Luc Bourbonniere, the Head of the Novel Foods Section of Health Canada presented the regulatory perspective.  He contended that Canada has high standards of food quality. As well he stated that “we get a lot of letters.” Oftentimes these letters are ill-informed, often from dubious sources. He called for increased efforts to combat misinformation.

The incredible logistical marvel of feeding the future continues, as does the vigorous debate.

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Congress of the Humanities and Social SciencesCongress 2014