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Secret wheat trials in Canada maybe not so secret

by Robert Schubert
CropChoice editor

(Friday, Sept. 17, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Secret field tests of transgenic wheat in western Canada this year may not be so secret after all.

Earlier this week, the Canadian National Farmers Union and Greenpeace released documents obtained through the country's open records law. They showed an April agreement between Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (the country's ministry of agriculture) and Syngenta to test wheat the company genetically engineered to resist fusarium head blight.

Rather than secret, the trials are public and a continuation of those done in 2002 and 2003, said Judy Shaw, government affairs director for Syngenta Canada.

All such confined field trials of plants with novel traits are supposed to be listed on the website of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, but the 2004 data is missing, which raised concerns in some quarters of a cover-up. (Please see instructions for accessing the field trials section of the CFIA site at the end of this story.)

Normally, the information is posted to the website after planting, which was delayed this year by the weather, said Heather Arbuckle, an environmental release assessment officer with the Food Inspection Agency. In addition, making the information tables readable to the blind has presented technical difficulties that further delayed posting. Arbuckle said the trials for 2004 should be posted by next Wednesday, Sept. 22.

Fusarium is a destructive fungal disease that renders wheat inedible, subtracting more than C$100 million annually from Canada's harvest.

Judy Shaw from Syngenta said the company is serious about tackling the fungus through a variety of techniques. Those include:

  • biotechnology -- inserting a fungus-resistant trait(s), which may or may not originate in the same species, into the wheat plant;
  • conventional technology -- using traditional plant breeding (also incorporating genomics to identify resistant genes within the plant); and
  • crop protection -- creating new fungicides to better control or kill fusarium.

These field trials are meant to evaluate traits, not to grow a resistant wheat ready for market this year, she said. The earliest the company could do that would be after 2010. Commercial introduction would be dependant on a number of factors, including market acceptance.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada conducts the trials under contract with Syngenta and maintains secrecy over their exact locations to protect the company's intellectual property rights.

Darrin Qualman of the National Farmers Union said the transgenic wheat trials should stop: "It is undoubtedly a net loss proposition when you look at 80 to 90 percent market rejection and then add in the higher cost of the patented seed."

Egypt, England, Italy, Japan and other major export markets have said repeatedly they will reject genetically modified wheat from Canada (and the United States) if it were commercially grown or if contamination happened from experimental trials. Qualman said such market rejection could amount to hundreds of million of dollars.

While this disease resistant wheat might increase supply, demand would fall as those export markets looked elsewhere for non-transgenic varieties, he said. As a result, wheat growers could find themselves receiving lower prices for their harvests.

To access information on trials of plants with novel traits in Canada, go to the "Plant Biosafety" section of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency website at http://www.inspection.gc.ca . Under "Frequently Asked Questions," click on "What PNTs have been grown in confined research field trials in Canada?" Then, choose the "detailed" tables of the year in question.

The CBC story from earlier this week is available at http://winnipeg.cbc.ca/regional/servlet/View?filename=mb_wheat20040915

A few of the other related CropChoice stories: