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Farmers Fight to Keep Monsanto's Genetically Modified Wheat Out of Canada

by Tom PriceSpecial to CorpWatch
March 5th, 2003

GM wheat
Disaster Relief

Recent actions by Monsanto have sparked outrage by Canadian farmers and reignited a long-standing battle to keep genetically modified (GM) wheat out of the marketplace. Farmers say the introduction of GM wheat would destroy the international market for their crops. A Canadian family farmers group has launched a nationwide anti-GM tour and is calling for a boycott of Monsanto's Roundup herbicide. The effort was sparked by what farmers allege is broken promise by Monsanto Canada to respect opposition to the introduction of GM wheat into Canada.

"Monsanto has long said they won't push ahead [with GM introduction] unless farmers and consumers want it, and that's where we thought it was, until December," said Darin Qualman, Executive Secretary of the National Farmers Union (NFU), which represents thousands of farm families throughout Canada. On December 23rd, while attention was focused on the holidays, Monsanto applied to move ahead with regulatory approval for GM wheat, one of the final steps before bringing the product to market.

A Monsanto Canada spokesperson denied any connection between their efforts to gain approval, and bringing the products to market. "Regulatory submission is completely independent of any commercial introduction," says Trish Jordan, noting that similar efforts are underway in both the US and Japan as well. Jordan explained that the company is only concerned with "assuring that western Canadian farmers have unrestricted access to innovative new technologies that will allow them to remain competitive." She adds that Monsanto is not ready to begin sales anytime soon. "We certainly are respectful of the current environment."

That environment is, to put it mildly, overwhelmingly opposed to GM wheat. Some 82% of customers "tell us they will not buy GM wheat," says Louise Waldman, Media Relations manager for the Canadian Wheat Board. Currently, over three quarters of Canadian wheat is exported to 70 countries worldwide, generating $4 billion (Can.) in annual sales. "Our position is not ethical or moral or scientific; it's purely economic. Our customers are telling us they don't want to buy GM wheat the market is telling us they don't want it, and we certainly haven't seen evidence that people want it."

Roundup Ready Wheat

The crop in question, western red spring wheat, is typically used to make flour, bread, cereals and crackers. As it has already done with other crops such as corn and canola, Monsanto has genetically engineered their wheat to be able to withstand application of their powerful Roundup herbicide, or glyphosate, hence the name "Roundup Ready" wheat.

During the NFU tour over the next few weeks, Farmers' Union President David Wells will be reminding farmers they can send a message just by choosing another brand of glyphosate. "If we want to keep GM wheat out of our fields, if we want to protect our foreign markets, we need to take direct action," said Wells announcing the boycott on February 24th. "Because there is an alternative, farmers can easily switch brands." This may be made easier by the fact that the patent on Roundup Ready Wheat has expired.

While acknowledging there are some valid concerns, Monsanto's Jordan says organic and conventional farmers can happily coexist side by side. "All it takes is a little cooperation with your neighbor One of the things you can do, if you're concerned, is modify your seed date, to change the flowering date."

Not so, says the NFU's Qualman. He argues that GM crops won't stay "down on the farm," either in the fields or when being shipped. "Remember when they [Monsanto] introduced GM canola, they said it wouldn't outcross (cross pollinate with non-gm strains)? Well it did."

Farmers Concerned About Contamination

Organic Farmers filed a class action suit filed last fall arguing that the introduction of GM wheat would eventually lead to widespread contamination of their fields, and loss of market share. Such concerns have precedent. Genetic contamination of organic canola crops by Monsanto's Roundup Ready Canola and Aventis's Liberty Link genetically modified canola was widespread, in spite of vigorous containment efforts, according to a study released last year by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. Wheat generates some 30 billion seeds per acre, which can then be distributed by wind, insects, water, equipment, and a number of other methods. Seeds may lie dormant for years before germinating.

"It will take them a while before they admit segregation systems won't work," says Qualman. Monsanto spokesperson Jordan agrees, up to a point. "Right now we have in Canada a bulk handling system, so as the system stands it's not capable of handling segregation. As a company, we recognize there's a lot of work to be done in some of these areas."

To split apart a massive, centralized systems with thousands of input points, like the Canadian grain system, would carry enormous costs. "I guess you can make anything work if you have infinite amounts of money, but in all of these cases it's the farmer who's going to pay," says Qualman. "The grain companies won't pay, the customers won't pay, Monsanto won't pay, so all the costs end up on the farmers."

If crop segregation were to fail, it could have devastating consequences. It could close off access to markets in Europe, where opposition to GM crops has been vigorous. The head of England's largest flourmill, Rank Hovis, was quoted in the Toronto Star as saying "if you do grow genetically modified wheat, we will not be able to buy any of your wheat-neither the GM nor the conventional. This has nothing to do with principle, or with trade barriers. We just cannot sell it."

The Hunt for Big Profits

With such opposition and marketplace resistance, Qualman can only think of one reason Monsanto is pressing ahead. "Their motivation is to make a bigger profit," he says simply, regardless of opposition.

"Monsanto is big, they've got billions to spend, they're a formidable opponent, but on this one they're alone. No body wants this, not the farmers, the processors don't want it, the foreign customers don't want it, families that are buying bread and crackers don't want it, who does want it? Monsanto."

At least one study has concluded the company, which lost $2.5 billion (Can.) last year, could stand to gain $157 million in profits from the sales of GM wheat. However, that same study by the University of Saskatchewan, titled "The Perfect Time to Introduce A Biotech Lemon," estimated that all farmers would be worse off, costing GM farmers $45.8 million and non-GM farmers $32.3 million.

The study further concluded that economically viable segregation of GM and non-GM crops isn't possible, leading to the eventual contamination of the entire Canadian wheat crop, and notes that once introduced, the GM crop can never be withdrawn. "Given the likelihood that the GM wheat genetics cannot be totally reclaimed from the environment, the decision to license GM wheat is irreversible," the study concludes.

Opposition to the introduction of GM wheat into Canada mirrors efforts underway south of the border. A recently circulated petition in the US signed by groups such as Organic Consumers Association, The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods and the Sierra Club, among others, asked Agricultural Secretary Anne Veneman to block introduction of GM wheat to the US marketplace.

With so much lined up against them, it would be reasonable to expect Monsanto to be modest in their future aims, but that would be a mistake. For their part, Monsanto is looking past market acceptance. According to Jordan the eventual introduction of Roundup Ready GM Wheat in North America is not the end, but the beginning of a whole new line of specialty products growing across the Canadian and US heartlands. Citing research intro strains that could have tailor made results, from increased proteins to lowered starch, she said. "We see the Roundup Ready wheat serving as the platform for the introduction of future traits."

Doing so, however, will require getting past groups like the National Farmers Union, which have successfully taken on Monsanto in the past. Efforts in the early 1990's by Monsanto to introduce their genetically modified Bovine Growth Hormone into Canada were met with fierce resistance by a coalition of farmers, health advocates and consumers, recalls Qualman.

"It took 10 years, but there is now no Bovine Growth Hormone in Canadian milk. It takes a long time and you have to have a wide coalition, very broad public support and build political pressure, but you can win."

After spending eight years working as a conservationist on Capitol Hill, Tom Price returned to his home town of Salt Lake City. He now works as a freelance journalist covering environment, culture and travel.