chopra
Image source: Total Health (2013)

On March 25, Peterborough was pleased to host the world-renowned Canadian microbiologist and human rights activist, who was credited as being involved in one of the first major whistleblowing incidents in Canadian public service, Dr. Shiv Chopra. The lecture took place at the East City Lion’s Community Center and featured Chopra as a keynote speaker, in addition to local panelists Cheryl Lyon, Ken Mills and Tom Hutchinson.

In 1998 and 1999, Chopra and several of his colleagues testified to the Canadian Senate that they were pressured by senior supervisors to approve multiple drugs that had not undergone rigorous testing, and were of questionable safety. Included were Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) and Baytril, which in the words of Chopra “is even more controversial. It’s a critical antibiotic, one that produces cross-resistance against a critical antibiotic necessary for human use called ciprofloxacin. It’s from the same class of drugs. When it is used in poultry, beef, turkeys, pigs, or whatever, then it causes cross-resistance in the intestines of those animals. Then those bacteria, like salmonella, campylobacter, or E. coli, get transferred to people and cause disease and death of immense order.”

The majority of these drugs were used to increase meat and dairy production in livestock.

Since then, Chopra has dedicated himself to advocacy and activism around food security, safety and quality in scientific as well as internationally political contexts. His lecture at the East City Lion’s Community Center specifically aimed to discuss the effects of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) on Canadian food safety, quality and security, as well as the economy. The TPP is a trade agreement between 12 Pacific Rim countries which contains 1000 pages including issues of public policy.

Its stated goal is to “promote economic growth; support the creation and retention of jobs; enhance innovation, productivity and competitiveness; raise living standards; reduce poverty in our countries; and promote transparency, good governance and enhanced labor and environmental protections.”

Although the partnership deals with matters pertaining to a vast amount of issues, Chopra focuses on the impact it will have on food safety and sovereignty in Canada. He initially alludes to the purpose of the TPP; to create profit in the interest of protecting the investments of corporations. The TPP did not pass through parliament, which is also problematic in a democratic system of governance.

The TPP will have an immense effect on Canada’s dairy, poultry and meat sectors. In addition to affecting milk, the TPP agreement would allow for more imports of yogurt, ice cream and different types of cheese, said Sylvain Charlebois, professor of distribution and food policy at the University of Guelph’s Food Institute.

Canada’s protected dairy sector faces severe consequences as an additional 3.25 per cent share of imports in the sector would be allowed under the partnership from the states, in addition to 17, 700 tonnes of cheeses permitted from Europe, as well as a 2.3 per cent increase in imported eggs, and a 2.1 per cent additional increase in chicken, totaling in a four per cent increase of dairy and poultry products; a not insignificant number. This will continue to put local farmers out of work.

Chopra added that in addition to the economic backlash farmers will face, Canadians need to be concerned about the quality of food being brought into the country. According to his research, foods coming into Canada from other countries with different food safety regulations can pose health risks to Canadians. The “Five Pillars of Food Safety,” coined and constructed by Chopra, is a model that takes into account the risks we may be facing with increased imports. This includes increased hormones and antibiotics, pesticides, slaughterhouse waste and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

One of Chopra’s largest concerns is that the food being imported, which has not been rigorously tested for safety, will cause Canadians to fall ill and be increasingly predisposed toward cancers as a result of consuming products that have been treated with unnatural chemicals, causing shorter lifespans in livestock. Once Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs) are determined, they are legally obligated to be published. There are no hormones listed, Chopra added, because there are no minimums for complete carcinogens.

As a solution, Chopra encouraged the nation to launch a public movement. Before it passes, the partnership must be ratified in provincial and federal courts. In addition to this, he stated that we must invest in local farmers to keep money and resources in our own communities. He questioned whether Canada is a truly democratic state if chemicals are being put into the food, and therefore
bodies of Canadian citizens, without their acknowledgment or consent.

Panelist Lyon, the secretary of the Board of Directors for the Peterborough chapter of transition town, an “all volunteer, non-profit organization using economic localization to reduce our community-wide dependence on fossil fuels while increasing local community resilience and self-sufficiency in food, water, energy, culture and wellness,” also partook in the panel discussion. Lyon emphasized the absolute necessity of buying locally for economic benefit, as well as an adaptive measure in the face of global climate change.

Mills, the food security coordinator at OPIRG Peterborough and second-year biology student at Trent University, took a more direct approach by putting a lens on food scarcity for the economically disadvantaged. As food cupboards continue to disappear, noting the recent closing of the long-running OPIRG food cupboard, it is essential that providers of these services collaborate in order to secure more funding grants. He also noted that while many food justice activists on Trent campus have good intentions, they are not fully realized or put into action as frequently as is needed.

The last panelist, Hutchinson, emeritus professor of environmental resource studies at Trent University, spoke to the system of supply management systems in the food sector. It allows Canadian farmers to have set quotas while controlling supply and allows Canada to be self-sufficient.

However, as large portions of the meat and dairy sector are given to other countries, the small farms are put out of business. Echoing Chopra’s points, Hutchinson speaks of the danger to the economy as well as food quality; the amount of American milk with less regulated use of hormones in livestock will continue to proliferate in our markets and effect the health of Canadians for generations.

The theme is common amongst speakers; the quality of Canadian food and the Canadian dairy and meat economy are at risk, and residents of Canada need to come together to collectively do something about it before the partnership becomes ratified in provincial and federal courts.

In addition to this, local Canadian farmers must be supported to bolster access to food, in addition to increased local self-sufficiency and safety.

The health of current Canadian citizens as well as future generations is at risk.

“We need to take care of [ourselves] and our children. That is our duty to God,” Chopra concluded.