A controversy over an industry lobbyist's input into draft guidelines for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has exposed gaping loopholes in Canada's lobbying laws, experts say.
Jennifer Hubert, the executive director of plant bioengineering at CropLife Canada — one of Canada's largest agrochemical lobbies — appears to have written an early draft of proposed guidelines for the Canada Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) that would exempt seed companies from disclosing genetically modified products to consumers.
Metadata shows her as the creator of the Microsoft Word document leaked to Radio-Canada last month and indicates it was later modified by CFIA. Neither group denies CropLife Canada had input in the drafting process, but both maintain CFIA will have full control over the final product.
The document outlines CFIA proposals for how the government should interpret regulations for GMO seeds and supports an approach that would allow major seed companies to put some genetically engineered seeds on the market without publicly disclosing their products are GMOs.
The approach would hit Canada's organic farmers especially hard because they are prohibited from using genetically engineered seeds and other GMOs. Without this disclosure, organic farmers will struggle to know if their seeds are genetically engineered or not.
A day after the story broke, on Sept. 20, federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau assured farmers she has directed CFIA to ensure the pending regulations will not impact organic certifications. She gave no details about how the agency would protect the organic industry.
A government official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the issue emphasized to Canada's National Observer the guidelines are still in the early stage of development and have yet to go through a public consultation process. Earlier this year, Health Canada approved similar measures that exempt some GMOs from undergoing a food safety assessment, raising concerns among environmental and farmer advocates that CFIA will take a similar approach.
The close links between industry groups and the CFIA pushed a coalition of farmer advocacy and environmental groups Monday to call on Bibeau to replace the head of the CFIA. Citing an "improper collaboration" between the regulator and the industries it regulates, the group asked for a new leader "committed to maintain regulatory independence."
Despite the controversy, lobbying experts say the close relationship between industry and CFIA — the agency regulating it — isn't surprising. In fact, these kinds of collaborations happen regularly but typically go unseen thanks to Canada's lax lobbying rules, explained Duff Conacher, the co-founder of Democracy Watch, an organization that monitors lobbying in Canada.
The federal government keeps a lobbying registry, but it is severely limited. Registered companies and lobby groups are only required to report their interactions with government officials in broad terms. There are several other ways industry can influence policies without needing to report any interactions.
A controversy over an industry lobbyist's input into draft guidelines for genetically modified organisms has exposed gaping loopholes in Canada's lobbying laws, experts say. #GMOs
Communications between lobbyists and federal officials only need to be registered if they are initiated by the lobbyists and could result in financial benefits for the company, he said. If federal officials reach out to industry representatives for feedback, those communications don't need to be registered. That's likely what happened in the case of the new GMO guidance documents.
Those close relationships come as no surprise to Maxime Boucher, a researcher who has studied lobbying in Canada. Policies are often built on specialized knowledge, and the government specialists crafting them often have similar backgrounds and social networks as their industry counterparts. This is especially true in cases like GMOs, which are extremely technical.
Those close ties were evident in the GMO controversy. In its September story about the issue, Radio-Canada listed at least five former civil servants who now work with CropLife Canada.
"As long as the government is initiating all those communications, there's no disclosure. That's a major flaw in the lobbyist registry," said Conacher.