Full house at Campbell River city hall can’t convince council to go GE free

Council backs away from declaring Campbell River a GE free zone

An overflow of people in city council chambers Tuesday wasn’t enough to convince council to declare Campbell River a genetically engineered (GE) free zone.

Advocates of a GE free community rallied the troops for Tuesday evening’s council meeting, with nearly one hundred people descending on city hall, which prompted city staff to scramble to set up overflow chairs outside council chambers.

Inside, members of Campbell River’s Agriculture Support Group as well as a high school student and a long-time resident with a math degree all spoke to council to ask city officials to pass a resolution declaring Campbell River a GE-free zone.

Morgan Ostler, a member of the Agriculture Support Group, said there are worldwide concerns about the use of genetically engineered foods surrounding food safety and human health.

She said while the group is unaware of any local farmers using genetically engineered seeds, declaring Campbell River free of genetically engineered products could boost agriculture in the region.

Ostler told council that moving to a GE free community “would have a strong appeal to organic farmers looking for uncontaminated land for which to establish their business.”

But council wasn’t convinced and felt a decision on banning GE products would be better left to senior levels of government.

The Union of British Columbia Municipalities has already passed a resolution asking the province for a GE free B.C. and Coun. Claire Moglove thought the issue would be best dealt with within that type of forum.

“Not one of us on council would have the wherewithal to go through all the scientific literature and be the arbitrator of the scientific literature,” Moglove said. “The federal government has not done any research. That’s where the research should be done. We don’t have the staff time.”

Coun. Ron Kerr argued that staff could simply report back to council on the impact to city operations of going GE free, but Kerr’s motion was defeated by council.

Mayor Walter Jakeway agreed with Moglove that it was an issue too broad for city council.

“I believe the topic is so far beyond the scope of local government that we shouldn’t even go there,” Jakeway said. “We’ve got enough to worry about.”

Prior to that verdict, council heard from not only Ostler but Timberline Earth Club student Avy Willis and Alex Nicholl who both encouraged council to make Campbell River GE free.

Nicholl, who read from a paper written by biologist Sonia Nicholl, said there is a degree of uncertainty when it comes to GE products.

“A gene that is inserted  (into a genome) at random is likely to now be under a different regulatory system from where it originated,” Nicholl wrote. “This means that any number of unknown proteins could be made, and there is no way of knowing what their effects will be on organisms.”

Arzeema Hamir, a professional Comox Valley agrologist and director of the BC Food System Network, also spoke to council and pointed out one of anti-GE proponents’ biggest concerns – contamination.

“My next door neighbour is a dairy farmer who grows GMO (genetically modified organism) corn,” Hamir said. “Because of my certified organic status I cannot actually grow sweet corn on my property for fear of contamination, which is unfortunate.”

Hamir said a GE free resolution has the potential to increase the amount and availability of organic produce in Campbell River and could create a special brand for the community.

But not everyone at Tuesday’s meeting felt the same way.

Robert Wager, a laboratory demonstrator with the biology department at Vancouver Island University, played a slideshow of information for council full of court rulings and studies debunking what he refers to as GE myths.

He said that a ban on GE crops in Europe was struck down by its highest court for a lack of evidence that the crops are causing harm to humans or the environment.

Wager noted that although 14 B.C. communities have passed GE free resolutions, there is no scientific evidence to support that it’s needed.

“It is true that Richmond passed a resolution a year and a half ago for a GE free zone but they asked the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority for their opinion prior to making that declaration,” Wager said. “This is what they got back: ‘there is no evidence that Health Canada approved GE foods and food crops are any less safe for human health than non GE varieties. There is no public health reason for a ban on genetically engineered trees, plants and crops.’  Council chose to reject that opinion.”

Wager said Health Canada has stated that “the overwhelming body of scientific evidence continues to support the safety of genetically modified food.”