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August 26, 2000


Saskatchewan Premier's speech at the Biosafety Symposium


Below is the text of the speech made by the Premier of Saskatchewan,
the Hon Roy Romanow, at the 6th International Symposium on the
Biosafety of GMOs, held last month in Saskatoon.

Honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen good evening. As the Premier
of the province, and as a lifelong resident of this city, my first
pleasant duty tonight is to welcome all of you. We have visitors from
every corner of the globe - if a 'globe' can really be said to have
'corners' - and your presence here enhances Saskatoon's growing
reputation as an international centre of excellence in biotechnology.

At 'Innovation Place', for example, we are very proud of the research
being done, and of the 1,500 biotechnologists whose pioneering work
is doing so much to broaden the range of human knowledge. After all,
humankind has always tried to apply new knowledge - to broaden its
range - to improving our lives.

Back in 1797, the political economist Thomas Malthus proposed that
the earth could not support its growing population. He said in his
First Essay, 'The power of population is indefinitely greater than
the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.' In simple
terms, he believed population would grow faster than food supply. He
was wrong.

He was wrong because food productivity expanded, thanks to advances
in science and technology - soil science, animal husbandry and plant
breeding, the precursors to our modern biotechnology industry. We all
know that that the world's population continues to grow - earlier
this year, the earth passed the 6-billion mark and India alone saw
its one-billionth citizen born. So it is only to be expected - and
necessary - that we want to apply this particular growing body of
science and knowledge in bio-technology to improving lives, through
better foods and medicines.

You are building on the work of scientists and technologists who fed
a growing world through the 19th and 20th centuries. By continuing
their work, you can continue to feed an even bigger world in the 21st
century. And continue to prove Malthus wrong. Some like to say that
your work truly represents the 'cutting edge'. Of course, the idea of
a 'cutting edge' implies a sword, and a sword can cut both ways. We
are all excited by the great potential of genetically modified foods
and other biotech advances to benefit humanity. But our excitement
and our enthusiasm for these technologies must be tempered by our
recognition of the legitimate concerns people have about these new
technologies. Our willingness to adopt the new technologies must be
tempered by an equal willingness to adopt safeguards that will ensure
safety for the environment and for people, and guarantee their
understanding and acceptance of this important work.

First, let me briefly speak to just some of these benefits as I see
them. Since the International Food Policy Research Institute
estimates world demand for wheat, rice, and maize will grow by some
40 per cent in the next twenty years, increasing our productivity is
not just desirable, but vital if we are to feed a hungry world. By
introducing new crop varieties that are drought and pest resistant,
genetic engineering offers developing countries the prospect of
rendering land more productive and providing a greater degree of food
self-sufficiency. I think for example of the millions in Africa who
rely on the sweet potato as a dietary staple, and the genetic
engineering that makes that crop greatly resistant to devastating
viral attack. I also think of the 40 million people - including 8
million children - who might live longer when they are able to get
more iron and beta-carotene from genetically-engineered rice. UNICEF
says more than a hundred million children suffer from Vitamin-A
deficiency caused by a lack of beta-carotene. Which is why Charles
Arntzen of Cornell University has said, 'This one accomplishment of
genetic engineering could alleviate more suffering and illness than
any medicine has done in the history of the world.' At the same time,
there are advances in medicine as well - the 'nutriceuticals' and
other advances that will that will allow vaccines to be delivered for
pennies by being carried in the tissue of common fruits. Here at
home, I think about the millions of consumers who will enjoy more
vibrant and longer-lasting vegetables, more nutritious quality food,
produced at low prices and with much lesser reliance on pesticides
and herbicides.

Which brings me to the second major benefit of genetically engineered
crops and foods: the benefit to the environment. Clearly, creating
crop strains that are naturally resistant to pests, weeds and disease
reduces the amount of chemicals that must be added to the crops, and
eventually to our environment. Reducing the amount of chemicals is
also one of the potential benefits genetic engineering offers to our
farm producers, here in Saskatchewan and around the world. Besides
reducing input costs of pesticides and herbicides, farmers can look
forward to growing crops that are more precisely suited to their
climate and soil conditions. And this, too, is particularly welcome
to us here in Saskatchewan. Our farmers are facing critical income
shortfalls because of low commodity prices caused in turn by
international trade subsidy wars. So any cost savings will be greatly
welcomed. Let me also add that while Saskatchewan's economy is based
primarily on exports, including the export of food, we should all
welcome the prospect of increased food self-sufficiency for all
nations. For as people's basic food needs are met, their economic
well-being increases, and they will come to us for the kind of high
quality food we can provide - at prices that will allow our farmers
to make a fair living. And finally, biotechnology and genetic
engineering offer a general economic benefit to all citizens, as a
result of overall enhancements in productivity and the large
investments being made to further the research.

Here in Saskatoon, just to offer one example, the research at
Innovation Place is directly responsible for hundreds of millions of
dollars in economic activity, making our city, our province and our
nation stronger. The Government of Saskatchewan wants to build on the
current strengths and benefits of these industries by fostering the
development of other naturally compatible sectors, particularly
medical and environmental applications. So, if you like, these many
benefits - and others with which you are more familiar than I - make
up the one 'edge' of the 'two-edged sword' to which I referred
earlier: The benefits and potential benefits of biotechnology and
genetic engineering are truly awesome in their scope.

Many of these advances are the stuff of dreams - the dreams to
eliminate hunger, to eradicate diseases, to make life better. But as
the poet Yeats once said, 'In dreams begin responsibility.' We can
and should be enthusiastic about the potential of these new
technologies. But bluntly stated, I believe governments, industry,
and the scientific community share a responsibility to also be aware
of - and sensitive to - the concerns surrounding their use.

First, I believe we must resist the urge to dismiss criticism of
biotechnology as 'Luddite.' It is certainly true that many of the
concerns are raised out of emotions and perceptions, made worse by
poor media reporting and deliberate manipulation of public opinion.
But in matters of public policy - believe me - perception is reality.
And when you are talking about the food people put in their
children's mouths, you had better be prepared for a cautious, even
fearful response. Let's not forget that when frozen food was
introduced in the 1920s, it met with great public reluctance. That
reluctance has understandable parallels today, when, for example,
genes from nuts have been experimentally inserted into soybeans,
creating the potential for higher nutritive content, but also for
allergens to find their way into otherwise safe foods. Such an
example, isolated though it may be, points to the fact that we must
realize that many people have genuine and legitimate concerns beyond
emotional reactions - concerns that are firmly rooted in the
inevitable uncertainties of technologies that are not well understood
and are still evolving.

Even some distinguished members of your scientific community have
warned against the 'hubris' of believing that a genetically
engineered organism is, 'no more than an arbitrary mix of independent
lengths of DNA.' Those scientists caution us to tread carefully. They
warn us that introducing large-scale traits into new genetic
environments, with the many unknown interactions, creates systems so
enormously complex that they may defy predictive modeling. We need to
accept and address concerns like the environmental impacts of
genetically engineered plants: What are the dangers of creating
so-called 'Super-weeds'? What are the potential risks of losing
biological diversity? These questions must be addressed, fully and
openly. To do otherwise is to risk letting the Monarch butterfly
become a symbol of opposition to scientific advancement. Finally, we
also need to address the concern about what I call 'intellectual
diversity,' by which I mean the possibility of concentrated corporate
control over vital life-forms. Saskatchewan has a long and proud
history as an agricultural province - a history created by
independent family farmers. For that reason, we are leery of the
potential for a small number of corporate entities to exert monopoly
control over seed and crop varieties. So those are some of the
criticisms - again, well known to you - and they are criticisms that
must be addressed. We have to deal with all of it, because right or
wrong, it matters to people. And I congratulate you and the
organizers of your conference for inviting the public to participate
by voicing concerns.

Now, to reassure consumers and citizens that we hear them, that we
take their concerns seriously, requires attention to two key factors:
education and regulation. I mentioned a moment ago the often
misguided concerns caused by poor understanding of the issues, made
worse by poor reporting in the media. I think most of you will agree
with me that the debate is not advanced by the use of terms like
'frankenfoods' and 'the terminator gene.' Good for making headlines,
but not so good for making public policy. The media thrive on
controversy, and few things are more controversial than a real or
perceived threat to that most basic necessity - food.

Misinformation, half information, more interest in a sound bite than
sound science - all of these things contribute to a situation where
the public is more likely to react with knee-jerk defensiveness than
with critical analysis and acceptance. Critical analysis would reveal
the flaws in the current coverage - including, most importantly, the
media's failure to promote balanced and open debate that examines the
issues on the basis of sound science and sound ethics. But we cannot
and should not engage in a battle of public-relations. Such an
attempt will lead to increased cynicism. Instead, let us ask that all
sides to justify their assertions and to prove their claims. For
government and scientists to enter the fray will require moral
courage and a thick skin. We are likely to be accused by opponents
and proponents alike of having an agenda, regardless of how balanced,
transparent and open we try to be. But try we must, for the positive
potential of the biotech industry is too great.

The best way to deal with 'junk science' and scare-mongering is with
good science and good sense. Let us resolve to go to the people with
the truth, and a willingness to explain, openly and honestly, all
sides of these issues.

Education! And let us not try to persuade people that the technology
is absolutely risk-free. Instead, we must point out that we can't
ignore the many potential positive impacts of biotechnology because
we cannot provide 100 per cent certainty in all areas. Every human
advancement - from the use of fire in pre-history to vaccines in our
own lifetimes - has balanced risk with the potential benefits,
long-term and short-term. Every day, each of us assesses risk and
makes choices about how we will live our lives. We have no absolute
guarantees. But citizens do have the right to expect governments to
work with them and with industry to minimize the risks. That means
careful, thorough, and neutral regulation, with government and
industry ensuring the products of biotechnology are safe - for the
public and for the environment.

This conference on biosafety reflects the emerging awareness at all
levels of the need to include discussions of bio-safety issues in our
regulatory efforts. Those of us in government - we who are public
servants in the broadest sense of the word - have a duty to protect
the public's interests and well-being. The Government of Saskatchewan
takes this responsibility very seriously. And we in Canada are
fortunate to have what is possibly the finest food safety and
inspection service in the world. I have faith in the quality and
integrity of Canada's food safety system, but I also know that we are
entering new territory with genetically modified foods. The public
expects - and I share this expectation - that government will
demonstrate appropriate caution in introducing any new product into
the food stream, including those produced through biotechnology. And
while regulation of the biotech industry in Canada is the direct
responsibility of the federal government, the Government of
Saskatchewan recognizes that it also has a role to play in ensuring
that bio-technology issues are addressed openly and comprehensively.

Thus, we are urging Ottawa to continually monitor and enhance all
aspects of their regulatory regime, especially its transparency and
responsiveness, and to ensure all reasonable safeguards and
precautions are built into the system. We have also urged Ottawa to
increase its efforts to provide information about the regulatory
processes in place to provide protection to consumers and the
environment. And our officials continue to work with national
technical committees to identify and respond to issues as they
emerge. But regardless of who does the actual regulating of
bio-technology in any given country, successful regulation must be
transparent, responsive and informative. For, as the old saying goes:
It is not enough that something is done; it must also be seen to be
done. And I believe that, working together, consumers, government and
scientists can capture the benefits of a bio-technology industry that
meets people's needs while still respecting their concerns.

In conclusion, if we want to ensure genuine management and
enforcement of bio-safety, we must be willing as a society to have
full and frank discussion of biosafety issues. This conference is an
important piece in achieving this ideal. By gathering here, you are
demonstrating in a very real and important way your commitment to
safety, and to the kind of openness that will be vital for clear
understanding and acceptance of these complex and important issues. I
trust that your time here will have been productive and enjoyable,
and that you will have the chance to enjoy some of our Saskatchewan
hospitality before you return home to continue your important work.
On behalf of the people of Saskatchewan I thank you for your efforts
and wish you every success in your discussions. Good luck to you all
and God bless.