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Could transgenic canola troubles be repeated with wheat?

(March 22, 2002 CropChoice news) Here is a transcript of yesterday's CBC broadcast about the troubling economic and agronomic effects of transgenic canola in Canada.

REG SHERREN: He could be anyone rushing to work, but he's a federal scientist, inside his briefcase a secret study, research vital to Canadian agriculture, research he can't discuss publicly. His bosses in Ottawa know what he's found: an agriculture nightmare nobody wants, but everybody knew was coming.

Hi. I'm Reg Sherren, and welcome to Country Canada. Behind closed doors here in Ottawa top government officials are being briefed about a major problem, an idea some say is now spinning out of control, technological advances which are crippling Canadian farmers. Many people worry we're about to make the same mistake again with even more devastating consequences. Robert Stevenson is harvesting his canola crop on his farm near Kenton, Manitoba.

ROBERT STEVENSON: My family homesteaded here about 120 years ago, and you know, I hope that my son will take over the farm too. You know, he's interested and... But I see this as a real threat to that... the viability of the farm.

SHERREN: Stevenson's threat is genetically modified canola. He's never planted it, but it's growing in his fields.

STEVENSON: I wasn't surprised to see a few plants. What has really surprised me is the number of plants and how widespread they are. Actually, my initial thought was this is the beginning of a long and unpleasant relationship.

SHERREN: Genetically modified canola was created not by farmers but by chemical companies. The canola is designed to resist certain chemicals so a farmer can spray for weeds and not damage the crop. Monsanto is the favourite in Canada. Nearly half of the genetically modified canola planted is Monsanto's Roundup-Ready variety. And GM canola has become a farmer favourite. It hit the markets in 1995. Today more than half of the canola grown in Canada is genetically modified. But not everyone is a fan.

STEVENSON: On my brother's farm, which is right beside mine, he's finding the same problem, and other neighbours as well.

SHERREN: In the summer of 2001 Stevenson discovers Roundup-Ready canola in two of his fields... and not just a few plants.

STEVENSON: It's close to being as thick as a crop. Crop insurance considers nine plants per square metre to be a viable canola crop. Without even trying I have four plants per square metre. This for me is a new weed, and it's here in very significant numbers.

SHERREN: That's why this study is so important, research into why genetically modified canola is showing up in places it shouldn't, information some people are trying hard to keep under wraps.

MARTIN ENTZ: I've always asked the question as to whether we've actually dug our way out of a hole or whether we've dug the hole deeper. And I think it's a bit of both.

SHERREN: Martin Entz is a plant scientist at the University of Manitoba. He says to understand the problem you first need to understand how canola grows.

ENTZ: Pollen from these flowers here, from the male plant parts from this flower, drift over and land on the female parts of these flowers, and then they can fertilize these flowers.

SHERREN: That's OK, unless pollen from genetically modified canola blows into a field of conventional, non-GM canola. The result: genetically modified plants where they shouldn't be.

ENTZ: My grandfather, who farmed rapeseed and canola all his life... when I told him that scientists were putting herbicide-tolerant genes into this plant, he just shook his head because he knows what kind of a promiscuous plant this is. And, you know, from an ecological perspective, it was the wrong plant to put such an important gene into.

SHERREN: That's why rules govern where and when a farmer can plant canola. Right now crops may be as close as 100 metres, distances regulated by the Canadian Seed Growers Association.

STEVENSON: Good day.

SHERREN: It's their job to ensure crop purity by checking seed supplies.

ART BOLTON: OK, we'll get a sample to look at.

SHERREN: Art Bolton knows about seed purity. He's a southern Ontario seed producer.

BOLTON: Let's see what we can get here.

SHERREN: This morning he's checking oats to ensure the quality is up to the standards prescribed by federal law. Seed growers visually screen for things that shouldn't be in the seed bag, things like weeds, and seeds from other crop varieties.

BOLTON: Looks like a pretty good sample.

SHERREN: Bolton is also president of the Canadian Seed Growers Association. He believes in the system, but he knows the system has problems. Bolton's association commissioned the secret study. The seed growers and the federal government had this man investigate GM canola contamination. Dr. Hugh Beckie is an award-winning federal government scientist, Agriculture Canada's outstanding young agrologist. Beckie won't talk to Country Canada. But we do know what he told scientists in England: Our studies have shown that pollen can travel at least 800 metres. That would mean the safeguards now in place in Canada to keep genetically modified canola away from conventional varieties don't always work.

ENTZ: And as someone who works on crop ecology and works on sort of field-scale issues with agriculture, I'm not really surprised at all because we know that we cannot contain things like pollen in cross-pollinating plants.

SHERREN: But cross pollenation isn't the only problem, or even the worst problem. There's seed contamination. Beckie analyzed samples from Canadian seed lots and found genetically modified canola in the non-GM seed, hardly surprising since the traditional visual inspection can't determine if a seed is genetically modified.

BOLTON: Maybe we before it was released we could have had the test so we could have followed more closely before it got this far along.

SHERREN: Markets are now at risk. Some countries don't want genetically modified crops. The European Union no longer imports our canola seed, and now more trading trouble. China is our largest canola buyer. Effective March 20th, China implemented new rules concerning genetically modified organisms. Simply put, we have to prove our canola has very little GM contamination.

ENTZ: Because the seed industry might be somewhat compromised, the question I have is, you know, have we lost all of that business or potential business in the future?

SHERREN: Beckie has also been reported as saying there's a good chance he will recommend changes to Canadian regulations. Too late, some suggest. Farmers in Saskatchewan claim they can't grow canola any more without GM contamination. The Saskatchewan Organic Directorate is suing Monsanto and another company for damages.

ENTZ: They have given up trying to grow organic canola. And it is in fact impossible to guarantee that there's no GMO DNA in any canola in Canada.

SHERREN: Stevenson is also losing some customers, customers now concerned about the quality of canola seed he can produce.

STEVENSON: We've been told that they aren't having it grown in this area any more because of contamination. That's a big blow to us.

BOLTON: Well, I guess, you know, it shouldn't have happened. I don't know where he got the contamination. Was it from the seed? Did it blow across the fence? I have no idea.

SHERREN: Canada's Agriculture Minister Lyle Vanclief. There's growing concern that conventional seed supplies have been contaminated. Scientists are now saying that it is impossible to grow canola that's not contaminated at some level, which (inaudible)...

LYLE VANCLIEF: I... I can't really make a judgment call whether that concern is any greater now than it ever was before, but it is there and it's being addressed.

SHERREN: Are you familiar with Dr. Hugh Beckie's report looking into seed contamination in seed lots?

VANCLIEF: I know that there has been a study done, yes.

SHERREN: Is there any particular reason why that report is not being released or why the doctor is now allowed to talk to us about it?

VANCLIEF: My understanding is at this stage that it may very well be involved in a court case, so I will not comment.

SHERREN: The report may be subject matter of a court case?

VANCLIEF: It could very well be called in, or it could not be.

SHERREN: In any event, it's a government report. If you want Canadians to feel comfortable about what's going on with genetically modified products, why not release it and why not let people read it?

VANCLIEF: Well, there's a process, which is Access to Information.

SHERREN: Yeah, but we're talking about a government now that's trying to promote fairness and openness and balance, but we're not being allowed to examine the facts. We're being told that your scientists can't talk to us and we can't see the reports.

VANCLIEF: Well, I do know that some of the work that is done by that report is preliminary report. And I think when any work is done, if it's preliminary then the first assessment that has to be made of any work that is done is that it's complete as it needs to be. And I know that that review is being done of that report...

SHERREN: Well, there's always...

VANCLIEF: ...to see... to see whether more needs to be so that it... so that it's as complete as it possibly can be.

SHERREN: There's always another report.

ENTZ: When we see our public service conducting research and then not being allowed to publish it, I think that's a real shame. I think it's... I think it's wrong.

STEVENSON: We have to have some answers. We have to know where we stand legally.

SHERREN: Stevenson wants to know who's responsible for his problems: the seed growers, Monsanto, the government?

STEVENSON: Farmers in general in the past have been, you know, trusting and relatively honest and straightforward. And it's a big... it's a change.

ENTZ: Yeah, that's mine.

SHERREN: That's why Stevenson and Martin Entz have come to Ottawa to talk to government. They believe not only farmers but world markets are at risk.

ENTZ: The genie is out of the bottle. Once these genes are out there I don't think we can go back.

SHERREN: And what worries them most is that Pandora's Box is about to be reopened. Genetically modified wheat is just around the corner, and this time the federal government is working hand-in-hand with Monsanto on its development. That story when we come back.

. REG SHERREN: In laboratories off limits to all but a select few, in carefully sheltered secret test plots across western Canada, scientists are creating the next and possibly greatest genetically modified crop. Genetically modified wheat could be ready by next year, and it has some people scared.

MARTIN ENTZ: The reason they're so worried is because in this case they don't want it but they don't see any way of stopping it.

UNIDENTIFIED: Hi, Bill. How are you doing? Good to see you.

SHERREN: Bill Taves farms near Cain in southern Manitoba. Today he's delivering wheat for cleaning. But he also grows genetically modified canola. He has for several years. But Taves is dead set against GM wheat.

BILL TAVES: If GM wheat came into the scene right at the moment, the value of the entire western Canadian wheat crop would go down.

SHERREN: Wheat has been king in Canada forever. Year after year more wheat is planted than any other crop, 20 percent of the world supply, exports to 70 countries. But GM wheat is threatening all that. Europe, Asia and Middle Eastern nations don't want GM wheat, nor does Japan. The majority of Canada's wheat-buying partners don't want it.

TAVES: Farmers, it seems, are on this biotech bus, but the driver's going wherever they decide to go.

SHERREN: This is the bus driver's head office. Monsanto cornered the market on GM canola. Genetically modified wheat is the next project.

TRISH JORDAN: We believe it can be done in a positive, responsible manner with benefits for everybody.

SHERREN: Trish Jordan speaks on behalf of Monsanto. What is your assessment of industry interest in genetically modified wheat or willingness to see the product on the market today?

JORDAN: If you were to ask people right now, I mean, there's all kinds of diverse opinions. And you know, if you talk about does anybody want to see genetically modified wheat introduced today, probably 100 percent of people would say no.

SHERREN: So you admit there's a fairly significant resistance out there to the product.

JORDAN: No. No, I wouldn't say there was a significant resistance to the product at all. And you're... that's... you're kind of turning my words around. If you ask... how you ask people the question...

SHERREN: So you're saying there is an acceptance of the product out there? Which is it?

JORDAN: Yes. I think the issue is does it have to be one way. You know, I don't think farmers who want to use biotech crops for the benefits that they provide and the economics that they return to their farm need to be told by organic farmers that well, they shouldn't be allowed to farm that way. Conversely, I don't think farmers who grow biotech crops have any right to tell an organic farmer well, you shouldn't farm organically. I mean, there's no reason whatsoever why different types of farming systems cannot co-exist, as they have for hundreds of thousands of years.

UNIDENTIFIED: Hi there. How are you?

SHERREN: Not all farmers are convinced that's possible.

UNIDENTIFIED: If I can get people to grab a seat, we'll get started here shortly.

SHERREN: In Brandon, Manitoba farmers meet Monsanto face to face.

UNIDENTIFIED: No kicking, gouging (inaudible)... There's a fair bit of passion on this issue, and that's good. Passion is good. We just want to keep things professional.

SHERREN: Some want answers about Monsanto's GM canola growing unwanted in their fields. Others are anxious about plans for GM wheat.

UNIDENTIFIED: We haven't always done things as well as we would have hoped. And the... the public perception of us has not always been that positive.

SHERREN: Do you get a little tired of big bad Monsanto?

JORDAN: Well, we're always tired of big bad Monsanto. But you know what? It's expected.

SHERREN: How close is Monsanto to being ready to say the product is ready?

JORDAN: Do we have a specific date? Absolutely not. Do we think it'll be in five years? We have no idea. You know. It'll be when we meet our commitments.

SHERREN: The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is Canada's watchdog over new crops. The agency conducts exhaustive field tests before approving a variety for farm use. Environmental risks are fully assessed. But the government does not evaluate whether that new crop may harm the marketplace. That has farmers worried.

TAVES: I think the federal government has to take some responsibility to ensure that we're increasing the value of the crops in western Canada, not decreasing them.

LYLE VANCLIEF: Well, do you think I, as the Minister of Agriculture, should tell a farmer what he should grow and what he shouldn't grow? I don't think so.

SHERREN: But some people suggest Lyle Vanclief is in an awkward spot. His department is helping to develop genetically modified wheat. In 1997 the federal government opened its doors to Monsanto with a dollar-for-dollar agreement. Public money and resources are creating Roundup-Ready wheat.

TAVES: But at the top levels, and perhaps right at the political level, I think there's a serious conflict of interest in what they're doing.

SHERREN: Why is it possible for the government to both be in business, in a certain respect, with the industry and yet regulate it? And how can you do that with any credibility?

VANCLIEF: Government research has always been and will likely always be, in many cases, partnering in order to do advancing research and technology.

SHERREN: How can you regulate a company that you are essentially signing contracts with?

VANCLIEF: But the Minister of Agriculture is not involved, other than to make sure that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency enforces those regulations. So... and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency does the enforcing. And we make sure that... the role of the Minister of Agriculture is to make sure that they do their job, not how they interpret their job.

SHERREN: So you're satisfied there is no conflict.

VANCLIEF: No, I'm... I'm satisfied that the work is being done, will be reviewed in the proper way.

TAVES: Well, if the Minister doesn't see that there's a conflict of interest, or at least a perceived conflict... conflict of interest, then he doesn't understand the nature of his own organization.

SHERREN: And farmers who are concerned say it doesn't help when the government refuses to discuss a study that could cause problems for Monsanto. Meanwhile, development continues. This summer, for the fifth year in a row, genetically modified wheat will be grown in secret test plots across the west. The stakes are high. One study suggests Monsanto could make up to $6 billion with genetically modified wheat. Who, in your estimation should make the final determination on whether or not genetically modified wheat is introduced in the market?

JORDAN: Basically, we feel that it has to be a consultative process. We... it's not a decision that we can make ourselves. It's not a decision necessarily that the federal government can make.

VANCLIEF: The role of government is to ensure safety. And the... business will make that other decision.

SHERREN: You can't put that horse back in the barn.

VANCLIEF: No, but you should ask that question to... to those that might be considering marketing the wheat.

TAVES: Well, unfortunately, I think Mr. Vanclief is just hoping that somehow we'll luck out. Let this thing play itself out, and maybe there'll be some kind of a magic bullet solution that will come along and... I feel very uncomfortable with that approach.

SHERREN: We'll be right back.

Source: AgNet