Few things in this world function so well as the natural food system. Sunlight and water rain down to feed plants, which convert solar energy to food energy as they grow. Animals then live off that energy by eating the plants, or eating animals that eat the plants. Animal turd and movement in turn spread seeds, fostering more plant growth, and the cycle begins again. It is a robust, secure system---astronomers figure the sun will be providing free power for the next seven billion years. And a Health Canada scientist is raising the alarm that it bears almost no resemblance to the way most food is produced in our country today.
Shiv Chopra is a career public servant. He has the gold watch and certificate signed by the prime minister that honour 35 years of service, although he was fired by Health Canada shortly before the milestone anniversary. That bungling of dates is a minor bureaucratic offence compared to what Chopra observed and endured during his time on the inside, a full accounting of which is the subject of his new book, Corrupt to the Core.
Subtitled "Memoirs of a Health Canada Whistleblower," Corrupt to the Core lays out in painstaking detail his employer's repeated failures to act in the public interest. When the Right to Know Coalition of Nova Scotia recently brought him to Halifax, Chopra explained to an audience of about 100 people how Health Canada gave rise to "the worst food safety record in the world."
The basic problem is there's a lot of pressure on Health Canada to support giant pharmaceutical and agricultural companies, rather than fill its legislated role as regulator. Chopra has faith in scientific testing and data as ways to protect Canadians from harmful drugs, and little desire to compromise. He describes corruption---a million-dollar bribe offer from Monsanto, scientists told by a supervisor to approve an unsafe product because the manufacturer was a fundraiser for former prime minister Brian Mulroney---without cynicism. And he speaks out despite the bureaucracy's seemingly limitless capacity to ignore, discriminate, punish and otherwise discourage dissent.
Chopra says Health Canada's cozy relationship with agribusiness allows farming practices that are outlawed elsewhere. Compared to the natural food system, the agribusiness food system is more assembly line than cycle, an assembly line designed to consume a lot of pharmaceuticals. The natural way to make a steak is for the sun to feed the grass, the grass to feed the cow, the cow to feed us. The agribusiness way takes a cow and feeds it synthetic growth hormone, making the cow bigger, faster. And because oddly large cows crowded onto a feedlot together get sick more often, they need to be put on a steady stream of antibiotics.
Big cows also need to eat something other than grass to bulk up quickly. The carcasses of other cows---ground and rendered into protein powder---used to fit the bill, until people realized turning cows into cannibals led to Mad Cow Disease. In the 1990s, many countries banned rendered feed altogether, whether for ruminants (cows) or other farm animals, but not us. "Even now in Canada," Chopra writes, "the ban on the feeding of ruminant materials applies to only cattle but not to any other species, such as swine and poultry, which are still recycled to make animal feeds, including those for cattle. The only purpose of doing so is to get rid of slaughterhouse garbage. Continuing to do so in Canada is unconscionable."
Besides hormones, antibiotics and rendered feed in animals, Chopra is concerned about pesticides and the use of genetically modified organisms in plant farming. He is calling for a Canadian ban on these items, the "five pillars of food safety," and he needs your help. "The public has immense power if it exercises it," says Chopra. He advocates signing petitions, going to rallies, writing politicians. And even after his time in government, he believes change is possible. "I am certain we will win."
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