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Canadians 'lose faith' in GM technology 'religion'

(Thursday, July 17, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Alistair Driver and David Burrows, Farmers Guardian, 07/11/03: Canadian farmers with first hand experience of growing genetically modified crops have warned their British counterparts that the costs of adopting the new technology can far outstrip the benefits.

After seven years of growing GM crops, Canadian farmers are turning their backs on the technology because the promised benefits have not been delivered and unforeseen problems have arisen, according to farmers visiting the UK this week to share their GM experience.

The introduction of GM crops in 1996 has not increased yields or reduced input costs. But GM crops have created 'super weeds' that are resistant to herbicides and problems with 'volunteer' crops that have led' to increased chemical use in some cases. There have also been problems of cross-pollination with conventional crops, while GM crops have damaged Canada's international markets and placed farmers in the control of the biotechnology giants, three Canadian farmers warn in an interview with Farmers Guardian.

At one stage, GM herbicide tolerant oilseed rape, was grown on 14 million acres of land in western Canada. That figure is now down to 9m acres as farmers have begun to lose faith in the 'new religion', according to Stewart Wells, president of the Canadian National Farmers Union, which represents about 7,000 small and family farmers in Canada. The change in attitude is illustrated by the strong opposition within the farming community - including the Canadian Wheat Board - to Monsanto's attempt to introduce GM wheat to Canada.

Lyle Wright, who farms 3,000 acres in Saskatchewan, started growing GM herbicide resistant oilseed rape in 1996. The main attraction was that he would no longer have to apply `residue' herbicides to the soil, but instead would be able to `burn out' weeds by spraying Monsanto's Roundup herbicide. The promise of higher yields and lower input costs were added attractions.

Two years later, he had given up on GM oilseed rape. "There turned out to be no yield advantage or cost savings when the 15/acre fee to Monsanto to use the technology was taken into account. I did not like the contract I was tied in to as it gave Monsanto the power to come and check at any time whether I had saved any seed, which is not allowed. I was also concerned about liability if something went wrong," he said.

The prospect of cross-pollination was not an issue when the idea of GM crops was first presented to farmers. But studies in Canada have since shown high levels of GM crosspollination between crops and wild plants growing wild that have made a mockery of the required 100m separation distance, he said. The prospect of contaminating neighbouring crops was a major factor in Mr Wright's decision to give up.

Wayne Amos' Big Dog Farm is primarily devoted to producing pedigree seed. He started growing GM oilseed rape, alongside conventional OSR and other crops, but now wants to stop. While there has been no increase in yield or reduction costs, he has been presented with a new problem of trying to control volunteers - plants that sprout up after the main crop has been harvested - that are resistant to Roundup.

He has been forced to apply additional chemicals to control the volunteers, including some of the more unpleasant ones he thought he had left behind. This is happening across Canada, not only with volunteers, but with 'superweeds' that have become resistant to Roundup, he said. "My advice to British farmers considering GM crops is to think what might happen two or three years down the line," he said.

Mr Wells is an organic farmer who has never grown GM crops but is affected by the technology as he feels unable to grow oilseed rape for fear of GM contamination from nearby farms. He said the only real benefit of GM is that they make it easier to farm large acreages and urged UK farmers to debate all the issues properly and not to be fooled by false promises of higher yields or profits.

The farmers were invited to the UK by Michael Hart, of the UK's Small and Family Farmers Association. "GM crops are not working for North American farmers and they are even less likely to work for UK farmers," he said.