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Canadian farmers fight transgenic wheat

(Tuesday, April 15, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- The Times-Herald via Agnet: Dick Proctor writes that there is a hot debate regarding genetically modified wheat on Parliament Hill, and it will have a big impact on thousands of prairie farmers. The Canadian Wheat Board says that more than 80 per cent of its foreign customers have indicated that they won't buy any genetically modified variety of wheat. If Canada decides to license and grow it, those customers may well go elsewhere for their product.

Proctor says that the debate over health and environment will continue, but for now many of our customers, especially in Europe and Japan, have said they have no intention of buying flour and other products made from GM wheat.

Unfortunately, this has not stopped Monsanto from seeking regulatory approval to introduce GM wheat in Canada. The company is seeking approval from the government, and it could come as early as 2004.

Proctor goes on to say that he recently met with Agriculture department officials and was told that the government's process for licensing GM wheat is based only on science, and would probably not include any market impact study on how the product might affect wheat exports.

Proctor concludes that many farmers as well as the people who buy Canadian wheat don't want it. Canada's wheat markets are of utmost importance, both to farmers and to the broader economy, and they must be preserved and protected.

April 14, 2003
Guelph Mercury via Agnet
Owen Roberts writes in this column that the question of who speaks for Canadian farmers is rearing its head again in the suddenly heated debate over genetically modified wheat. Despite the general move towards one voice or message for agriculture, there are farmers on both sides of this issue. The split is loud and clear.

Roberts says that sound science has always been a benchmark for approval in Canada, which has among the world's strictest and most thorough standards. Canadian approval was a badge for companies who successfully negotiated the system; they could point to the regulatory process and brag about meeting its demands. On the flip side, non-acceptance was a pariah. If Canada rejected it, there must be something not right about it.

But opponents of GM wheat say that if society -- not scientists and bureaucrats -- says no thanks to the product, that in itself constitutes something not being right. They say Ottawa shouldn't bend to corporate interests who promote such technologies just to make big bucks, whether the public is comfortable with them or not. Survey upon survey shows the public mainly wants safe food, and that biotechnology is not a major factor with them. So rightly or wrongly, the acid test usually lies with farmers -- if they won't use the products of biotechnology, we won't be eating them. They have a choice; there are many, many varieties of soybeans and corn for sale that have descended from conventional breeding. But so far, at least when it comes to genetically modified soybeans and corn, farmers support biotechnology because it works.

Roberts says that the Grain Growers of Canada issued a news release last week that was contrary to the wheat board's position. They said it would be a mistake for Canada to move away from science-based regulation for genetically modified plants.

"Some organizations have called for new legislation or regulations that would incorporate non-scientific factors, such as market acceptance, into Canada's regulatory approval process for the licensing of new plant varieties that are products of genetic technology," said president Ken Bee. "Bowing to this pressure would be an error." He acknowledges concerns about negative market impacts need to addressed, but he believes they should be dealt with on a voluntary basis by industry, and not through government regulations or legislation.

Roberts says people trust farmers, and when farmers take matters into their own hands, the public may be supportive. In fact, it already has been -- domestically, there's some dissension, but not great wails of public protest against genetically enhanced soybeans or corn. In the case of Roundup Ready wheat, though, it's corporate interests, not farmers, that are perceived as driving the technology. And for that, it's much harder to find public support.

Any company bringing forward new technology needs to engage the public in a thorough discussion before introducing it, or be prepared for mistrust.